Asia’s leaders, including Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, are still trying to work out how best to respond to the disruptive, America-first policies of President Donald Trump. The November Midterm elections in the United States did not provide any solutions to their dilemma. Indeed, the outcome of the polls suggest that Mr Trump is almost certain to run for re-election as president in 2020. The Japanese must therefore continue to try to maintain an alliance with Mr Trump, difficult though that will be.
The elections allow Mr Trump to continue as America’s leader, with considerable support from his Republican party, which retains control of the Senate, even though a swing to the Democrats has enabled his opponents to take control of the House. Yet when it comes to trade policy, Mr Trump enjoys considerable executive power which he can wield autonomously. That is especially significant when it comes to China.
Tariffs on China
Mr Trump has imposed tariffs of about $250 billion on Chinese imports into the United States and has threatened to increase that figure dramatically.
China is not backing down and nor is Mr Trump. His hawkish attitude delights the conservative wing of the Republican party but there is also backing for his approach among many Democrats.
“I think the outcome of the Midterm elections strengthens Trump’s hand on China,” Professor Linda Yueh from Oxford University told me. “He may well press a bit harder and he could gain some bipartisan support. He’s considering truly massive tariffs in China next year. But will he do that at a time when growth in the US economy is slowing?”
For Japan, the US-China trade war creates a dilemma. Japanese businesses dislike the disruption it causes to their manufacturing processes. There is also resentment that the US maintains tariffs on Japanese steel exports to the United States, despite Mr Abe’s request to Mr Trump lift them.
These tensions come at a challenging time. The economy shrank in the third quarter of 2018 by an annualised rate of 1.2%. A Reuters poll of economists in Tokyo suggests they see the US-China trade war as the greatest threat to the Japanese economy next year.
The conservative perspective
Despite the risk, conservatives in Japan relish Mr Trump’s challenge to China’s enormous economic power and its increasing political influence. Mr Trump accused the Chinese of interfering in the election process in the United States by pressing voters to back his opponents.
“China was watching the race closely,” Professor Yueh told me. “The Chinese were putting pressure on them to stop the trade war, saying that there would be no winners,” said the professor.
One danger for Japan is that emboldened in his fight with China, Mr Trump becomes increasingly protectionist. The President has ordered an audit of all the countries which have a trade surplus with America, including Japan. “He believes that having a trade surplus means you’re not playing by the rules,” says Professor Yueh.
Free trade principle
Yet there is another option. Instead of allowing a narrow America-first approach to prevail, Mr Trump could recommit the Republican Party to its principle of free trade. In doing so he could reverse his decision to exclude the United States from the TPP international trade agreement, which is strongly supported by Japan. This would act as a counterbalance to Chinese influence.
Shinzo Abe can still claim TPP as a major political achievement, even if America remains outside it for the time being. When the partnership comes into force at the end of this year it will mark a rare victory for global trade liberalisation, with Japan very much as the driving force.