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As President-elect prepares to take office, the new administration has an opportunity to adjust U.S. foreign policy direction with key allies. After a recent meeting with Prime Minister Abe, Trump has begun to outline how he envisions the U.S. relationship with Japan. The Cipher Brief spoke with Thomas Cynkin, Vice President of the Daniel Morgan Academy to discuss what could change and what could remain the same.

The Cipher Brief: President-elect Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently met in New York. How has this meeting been received in Japan, and how far did it go to assuaging some of Japan’s feelings about a Trump presidency?

Tom Cynkin: Prime Minister Abe, through gumption and fortuitous timing, was the first foreign leader to visit with President-elect Trump.  Hierarchy-conscious Japanese could not help but be pleased.  More informed Japanese observers are surely aware that this timing was more random than meticulously planned.  Opinion polls in Japan show that public concern about a Trump Administration runs high.  This is understandable, given the strong Japanese preference for stability and predictability – that is, more of the same.  However, once the Trump Administration’s specific intentions about renegotiating aspects of the U.S.-Japan relationship become clear, uncertainty will be abated and Japanese anxiety should be assuaged to a considerable extent.  Of course, the specifics of U.S. policy will have a major impact on Japanese attitudes, as well.

TCB: Donald Trump recently doubled down on his pledge to withdraw the U.S. from TPP. How would the scrapping of U.S. involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership by a Trump administration affect Japan? Would the absence of TPP create opportunities for China?

TC: PM Abe stated publicly that a TPP without the U.S. isn’t worth pursuing, and he may be right.  Economically, it is widely considered that TPP would benefit Japan more than it would the U.S.  The question from a U.S.-Japan perspective, therefore, is whether TPP could be renegotiated to redress that or whether the time has come to move past TPP and revert to a focus on bilateral trade agreements.

From the strategic perspective, the TPP construct was aimed at presenting Asian countries with a U.S.-led alternative to gravitating into China’s economic, and thereby political, orbit.  China hasn’t even been included in TPP negotiations.

With TPP now on the shelf, the Chinese alternative – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – has been gaining momentum and attracting renewed interest from China’s regional neighbors.  China’s RCEP already includes ASEAN plus Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India — accounting for nearly 27 percent of global GDP.  The mirror image of TPP, RCEP does not include the United States.

Absent a regional trade framework, the Trump Administration should consider working vigorously to forge bilateral trade agreements with Asian countries that are appropriately accommodating to U.S. economic interests.  This would avoid yielding the field to China and allowing Beijing to exert disproportionate influence, including rulemaking, on Asia trade.

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