The world incl. Japan is still struggling with understanding and predicting Trump, his policies and potential next steps. It has however become crystal clear that his main foreign policy thinking is firmly grounded on the old strategy of “divide and impera“. Already practiced by the Roman empire, the divide and rule strategy has again and again been used by past leaders incl. Niccolo Machiavelli and Louis XVI of France.

And now it is Trump who cancels or challenges multilateral agreements as TPP, NAFTA or NATO, where the U.S. is (or was) a member. He even tries to weaken organizations where the U.S. is not even a member of, most prominently ridiculing the EU.

In exchange, he focuses on striking bilateral deals with single countries. Be it a “special relationship” with the UK that he is luring from the EU. Be it Mexico that he tries to take out of NAFTA by negotiating with it bilaterally. Be it Russia as a potential special partnership between Wladimir and Donald.

Where is Japan’s place in this?

We will know more after the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to Tokyo on Feb. 3 and 4, where he will meet with Prime Minister Abe and Defense Minister Inada. Japan hopes that this meeting will confirm the existing alliance, allow them to explain the fundamentals of Japan-U.S. security policy incl. the fact that Japan already shoulders the bulk of hosting U.S. troops in Japan.

The probably more critical part comes with the Trump-Abe meeting currently envisaged for Feb. 10. Japan is alarmed by Trump’s comments on trade policies in general and in particular by his claims of unfair Japanese practices in the automobile industry. Abe is even considering a bilateral trade-agreement with the U.S. as he needs a replacement for TPP.

But fears are running high in Japan that it might end up on the loosing end of the new Trump era with its focus on bilateral relations. It is bitter irony that Japan actually needs one such bilateral agreement. It desperately wants to reaffirm the bilateral security pact with the U.S., which covers the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China as the Diaoyu.

Looking for allies and the right positioning with and versus a Trump-led U.S. at the same time, will be core for Japan. We are up for interesting times. The concept of “divide et impera” is known as bunkatsu tochi in Japan to a few scientists. I am afraid this term might become much better known here soon.


Jochen Legewie

Jochen Legewie

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