President Donald Trump used a visit to Japan to criticize his Japanese hosts, pointedly accusing them of unfair trade practices with the US and strongly suggesting Tokyo needs to do more to protect itself from North Korea.
In both cases, the president’s inflammatory rhetoric displayed an ignorance of basic facts and context that undermine his criticisms of the vital US ally.
During a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Monday, Trump took a veiled swipe at Japan for not shooting down ballistic missiles that North Korea sent flying over it in recent months.
“[Abe] will shoot them out of the sky when he completes the purchase of lots of additional military equipment from the United States,” Trump said. “The prime minister is going to be purchasing massive amounts of military equipment, as he should. And we make the best military equipment by far.”
Abe said he was considering such a deal but declined to fully endorse Trump’s enthusiasm for shooting down Pyongyang’s future missiles, saying instead that they would only be shot down “if necessary.”
Trump’s heavy-handed directive to Tokyo was in response to a question that alluded to reports over the weekend that he had told Asian leaders that he couldn’t understand why a nation of “samurai warriors” failed to take down North Korean missiles recently.
But Japan had several reasons to refrain from doing so. As Japan Times notes, the Japanese military quickly determined that the missiles that North Korea sent flying over Japan in August and September were not going to land on Japanese territory.
They also calculated that given the speed and altitude of the North Korean missiles, they would have been hard to strike down with their current missile defense system. If Japan had tried to intercept the North Korean missiles and failed, that would have been hugely embarrassing and undermined the credibility of their defense systems — potentially making North Korea more confident about launching an attack.
Furthermore, there were legal complications. As Noboru Yamaguchi, professor of international relations at the International University of Japan in Niigata, told the New York Times, Japan is legally only able to intercept a missile if 1) its citizens are actually in danger or 2) if one of its allies is being attacked. North Korea’s missiles were test weapons and were not equipped with live warheads.
And in addition to all this, Abe would likely need approval from Japan’s Parliament to intercept North Korean missiles, according to Yamaguchi.
Trump accused Japan of cheating on trade. But his argument is not persuasive.
While in Japan, Trump also accused Tokyo of taking advantage of the US with its trade practices, especially in the automotive sector. But here too his criticism has been at odds with reality.
“We want fair and open trade. But right now, our trade with Japan is not fair and it’s not open,” Trump told Japanese and US business executives in Tokyo on Monday. “The US has suffered massive trade deficits with Japan for many, many years. Many millions of cars are sold by Japan into the United States, whereas virtually no cars go from the US into Japan.”
There are a few things to point out about Trump’s comments here.
First, Trump believes that if the US has a trade deficit with another country — meaning that country exports more to the US than the US exports to that country — that it automatically means that trade with them is “unfair.”
Takatoshi Ito, an economics scholar at Columbia University, says that “elementary trade theory tells you that is not true.” Ito says that Japan is open and fair in its trade, and operates in accordance with rules laid out by the World Trade Organization (with the exception of the way it handles its agricultural goods). He says that when a country like Japan has a trade surplus with the US, it’s a reflection of comparative advantage — it makes products that the US wants more efficiently than the US does.
As for Trump’s concern that American cars do very poorly in the Japanese market while Japanese cars do well in the American market — analysts say that it’s mainly about consumer preference, not unfair trade practices.
Caroline Freund, a senior fellow at the pro-free trade Peterson Institute for International Economics, points to the fact that Germany sells more cars to Japan than Japan sells to it.
“The Japanese market is accessible provided US producers make a car that appeals to the Japanese people,” Freund says.
In other words, the real issue isn’t that Japan is blocking auto imports — it’s that the US needs to make better cars.