Symposium | The Stakes in Asia

Japan: Biden’s Big Challenge

By Glen S. Fukushima

Tagged JapanJoe BidenYoshihide Suga

On April 16, President Joe Biden welcomed to the White House Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. For Biden, Suga was the first foreign leader to meet in person since assuming the presidency on January 20. For Suga, it was the first face-to-face meeting with Biden since assuming the prime ministership on September 16, 2020, when he succeeded Shinzo Abe, who resigned abruptly for health reasons after being the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history (2006-2007 and 2012-2020).

The meeting achieved the goals that each side had set. For Biden, it was an opportunity to: (1) demonstrate to Japan its importance as an American ally; (2) signal to China that, despite its efforts to woo Japan during the Trump Administration, Japan remains firmly allied with the United States; (3) commit Japan to working closely with the United States on issues ranging from security to trade, investment, technology, climate change, and human rights; (4) show the American electorate (and the world) that he is rejecting his predecessor’s denigration of partners and allies and working closely with them to counter China’s growing influence.

For Suga, the meeting was important to: (1) show the Japanese public that, despite his reputation as a local politician with little experience in foreign policy (unlike his predecessor), he can be trusted to manage Japan’s relationship with the United States; (2) demonstrate to China that Japan has the firm support of the United States to protect Japan (including the Senkaku Islands) under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty; (3) demonstrate to North Korea that Japan has the firm support of the United States, including on the issue of Japanese abductees; and (4) show Japanese voters that in the elections expected this fall, Suga deserves to be reelected as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (and therefore continue as prime minister), and that the LDP should be reelected to maintain control of the Lower House of the Diet (parliament).

Examining the transition of U.S.-Japan relations from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration should shed light on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the relationship between the world’s two largest democratic economies.

The coronavirus pandemic that struck in late 2019 has affected the world profoundly, and Japan is no exception. But the pandemic’s direct impact on Japan has been relatively small when examining the number of cases of both infections and deaths relative to the size of Japan’s population, particularly taking into consideration its elderly population and high density. Among the G7 countries, Japan has had the fewest cases of infection (5,536 per million population as of May 20, 2021) compared to 35,397 in Canada, 43,305 in Germany, 69,196 in Italy, 65,326 in the United Kingdom, 85,145 in France, and 101,682 in the United States. Similarly, among the G7 countries, Japan has had by far the fewest number of deaths (95 per million population as of May 20, 2021) compared to 660 in Canada, 1043 in Germany, 1,656 in France, 1,811 in the United States, 1,872 in the United Kingdom, and 2,067 in Italy.

Although the direct disruptions to Japan resulting from the pandemic have been less than to the other G7 countries, the effect of the pandemic on other nations with a strong geopolitical importance to Japan—in particular, the United States and China—coupled with changes in Japan’s domestic political and economic environment have accelerated changes in geostrategic posture and direction that were already in progress in Japan. The fundamental challenge facing Japan is how to ensure its military security, political independence, and economic prosperity in the face of a less reliable and less predictable United States and a more powerful and more assertive China. For Japan, the ideal resolution of this challenge is to maintain positive and constructive relations with both countries, while recognizing the reality that even as economic ties with China—whether in trade, investment, finance, tourism, or the exchange of people—are growing relative to ties with the United States, political and security ties (and the sharing of common values) with the United States remain the centerpiece of Japan’s foreign policy.

Japan’s relations with the United States under the Trump Administration turned out to be much better for Japan than had been feared during the presidential campaign of 2016, when candidate Trump made statements that, if acted on, could have led to fundamental changes in the bilateral relationship. In particular, many in Japan feared that Trump would try to slash the bilateral trade imbalance by forcing Japan to buy American products or by imposing tariffs on Japanese products, including automobiles, being exported to the United States. Although Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, these actions were not the harsh trade policies that many had feared. Trump did initiate trade negotiations to regain from Japan what had been lost by withdrawing from the TPP—especially in agricultural tariff reductions—but these were no more demanding than what Japan had conceded in the TPP. A significant amount of arms purchases by Japan, as well as assiduous efforts by Abe to play golf and otherwise stroke Trump’s ego, seemed to keep Trump at bay.

On the security side, Trump assured Abe, in their first formal meeting in February 2017, that there would be continuity, including U.S. assurances that the Senkaku Islands would be covered under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty—just as President Barack Obama had pledged publicly when he visited Japan on a state visit in 2014. In 2019, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton disclosed that the Trump Administration was seeking a four-fold increase in Japan’s host nation support for the stationing of U.S. military forces in Japan. If Trump had been reelected for a second term, this would have become a highly contentious bilateral issue.

Japanese leadership viewed Trump as more aligned with Japan’s foreign policy interests than any of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Japan’s view of the Trump Administration was clearly divided between the general public, which did not want Trump to serve a second term, and the political leadership, which had established what it believed to be a positive working relationship based on the good personal chemistry between Abe and Trump. The public’s perception can be seen in the results of public opinion polls. A poll conducted by Gallup and the Yomiuri Shimbun in November 2019 found that 76 percent of Japanese thought that “it would not be desirable for President Donald Trump to be reelected in 2020.” And a Nikkei poll conducted in January 2020 similarly found that 72 percent of Japanese would not like to see Trump reelected, while only 18 percent said they would. (3) An NHK poll conducted in February and March 2020 found that 57 percent of Japanese agreed that, “Reelecting Trump would have a more negative than positive impact on Japan” (only 10.3 percent answered that it would be more positive than negative).

By contrast, the Japanese leadership—LDP, many government bureaucrats, and the business community—viewed Trump as more aligned with Japan’s foreign policy interests than any of the more than 20 Democratic candidates running for the presidency. The Democrats were seen to fall into three camps: (1) candidates who were totally unknown by, and unfamiliar with, Japan, and thus unpredictable and requiring strenuous Japanese efforts to build a relationship with them from scratch; (2) progressives, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who were seen as protectionists and isolationists; and (3) former Vice President Joe Biden, the one candidate familiar to Japan’s policymakers, but someone seen to portend a continuation of the Obama Administration—in the Japanese view, too soft on China, North Korea, and South Korea; too tough on Russia; and too wedded to human rights.

Although Trump did not appear to be making material progress in his meetings with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, Abe was pleased about the meetings in certain respects. First, they had resulted in fewer displays by Pyongyang of overt belligerence in the form of nuclear testing and missile launchings—in contrast to the passive “strategic patience” policy of the Obama Administration. Also, Trump gave repeated assurances that, in response to Abe’s request, he had brought up the issue of Japanese abductees each time he met with Kim, an important factor for Abe to boost his domestic political support. On South Korea, Abe did not appreciate Obama’s efforts to “meddle” in Tokyo’s contentious relationship with Seoul, especially since the Moon Jae-in government appeared to abrogate the agreement on “comfort women” that had been reached in December 2015 between the Park and Abe governments. It was not until the Moon government threatened, in August 2019, to terminate the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) with Japan that the Trump Administration intervened to smooth relations between the two, which was just fine for Japan. And on Russia, Abe appreciated Trump giving him a free hand to discuss with President Vladimir Putin the return of the Northern Territories to Japan and the concluding of a peace treaty. Obama, on the other hand, had repeatedly warned Abe not to get too friendly with Putin.

But the most important factor that led Japan’s leadership to favor Trump was his stance on China. In the Japanese view, the Obama Administration, from start to finish, was too idealistic, naïve, docile, and accommodating in its dealings with China. The fear was that Obama would be lulled by Xi Jinping into some form of G2, a “new model of great power relations” that would sideline Japan. By contrast, Trump was seen in Japan as pragmatic, realistic, and results-oriented in trying to change Chinese behavior. Some in Japan feared that if Trump pressed too hard on China and started a new Cold War, this would be detrimental to Japan, which would be required to choose between the two. Nonetheless, from Japan’s standpoint, a certain level of tension between the United States and China would heighten Japan’s value to both countries. Indeed, the thawing of Sino-Japanese relations in 2018-2019 was seen in Japan as thanks to Trump’s confrontational stance toward China which, in this view, forced Xi to wake up to the importance of Japan as China’s economic partner.

To Japan, China’s economic growth is both a threat and an opportunity. In 1980, China’s GDP of $305 billion was about one-third of Japan’s GDP of $1.1 trillion. In 2010, China ($6.1 trillion) overtook Japan ($5.7 trillion) to become the world’s second largest economy, and China surpassed the United States as Japan’s most important trading partner. The IMF predicts that, by 2023, China’s GDP will grow to three times Japan’s. On the security side, in addition to the Senkaku Islands, the broader issue of China’s rapid military buildup and its activities, especially in the South China Sea and East China Sea, have heightened Japan’s strategic concerns. China announced, on March 5, its 2021 defense budget, which includes a 6.8 percent increase over the previous year. The $208 billion budget is one quarter of that of the United States, but four times larger than Japan’s.

The Japanese leadership’s preference for Trump was made explicit in a widely read article published in the April 2020 issue of The American Interest titled “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy.” The article, written by an unidentified “official of the Japanese government,” asserted: “Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach is a lesser evil compared to the danger of the United States going back to cajoling China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder.’” The timing of the article made it clear that the official was arguing that, from the standpoint of Japan’s national interest, the reelection of Trump would be preferable to a Democrat winning the presidency.

As a result of Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Allied occupation, the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Cold War, and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, Japan’s postwar diplomacy has had as its foundation close ties to the United States. However, the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s led to a multipolar world, and information technology has contributed to the world becoming even more diversified and fragmented. In addition, the United States, over the past few years, has become less united, more polarized, and seemingly less committed to engaging with the world as it had been doing during the Cold War. In September 2013, President Obama declared that “the United States is not the world’s policeman,” while his failure to act in August 2013 on the “red line” he had drawn for Syria in August 2012 was widely noted.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump as President signaled to the world, including Japan, that the American voters had profound dissatisfaction and anxieties—whether about economic security, unemployment, social inequalities, immigration, race, etc.—and that they demanded “change” to benefit Americans. Trump turned out to be a xenophobe who claimed that the world, especially our allies and partners, were “ripping off” the United States and that “from now on, it’s going to be America First!”

This solipsistic view of the world, coupled with Trump’s erratic behavior and unpredictability, led many Japanese to question the reliability, dependability, and stability of the United States as a partner and ally. In addition, the competence and policy effectiveness of the American government was severely questioned as the Trump Administration mishandled the coronavirus pandemic. Public opinion polls in late 2020 showed the United States as having had the worst policy response to the pandemic among G7 countries, with the greatest number of infected cases and the highest number of deaths.

Shotaro Yachi, the former vice minister of foreign affairs who served as Abe’s first head of the then newly created National Security Council for five years and eight months (January 2014-September 2019), gave a speech at the end of last year on the future direction of Japan’s foreign policy. He advocated that Japan maintain its close alliance with the United States based on the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, while at the same time pursuing good relations with China as an important “neighboring country.” He emphasized the need for Japan to maintain a sense of balance and to oppose the “decoupling” from China that some Americans advocated. He also pointed to the importance to Japan of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (that is, “the Quad”—the United States, Japan, Australian, and India), the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, India, Australia, and ASEAN. In addition, he argued that the European Union—in particular Britain, France, and Germany—should be encouraged to engage in ensuring the future of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Although he did not use the word “diversification,” that is in fact what he was advocating for Japan’s diplomacy.

How Japan deals with China will depend in part on how confident Japan is of America’s power, stability, consistency, and reliability.

Additional ways for Japan to realize this diversification include expanding the CPTPP to include other countries and economies, implementing RCEP (Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership), pursuing other bilateral and multilateral economic arrangements, and engaging more actively in international organizations and institutions, including the World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, and more. And while trying to navigate between the United States and China, Japan is actively attempting to strengthen its ties to other countries and regions—especially Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 has not slowed Japan’s pursuit of diversification, but it has slowed its attempt to navigate a middle course between the United States and China. On February 18, less than a month after the inauguration, Secretary of State Tony Blinken met virtually with his foreign minister counterparts in the Quad, which was formed in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and formalized in 2007. Among the topics discussed were counterterrorism, countering disinformation, maritime security, and “the urgent need to restore the democratically elected government in Burma.” They also addressed “the priority of strengthening democratic resilience in the broader region.” The four reiterated a commitment for the Quad to meet at least annually at ministerial levels and regularly at senior and working levels “to strengthen cooperation on advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity.”

Then, on March 12, Biden, Suga, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met virtually for the first-ever heads of state meeting of the Quad. Among the issues discussed were the pandemic, economic cooperation, climate change, resilient supply chains, maritime security, and emerging and critical technologies. The Quad’s plan for the joint distribution of coronavirus vaccines across the Indo-Pacific region was meant to counter Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. China, for its part, criticized the Quad as an attempt by the United States to create an Asian version of NATO, in an attempt to undermine China’s legitimate rise.

The following week, Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin flew to Tokyo and Seoul to meet with their counterparts for the “2+2” meetings, after which Austin flew to New Delhi to meet with the Indian defense minister. At the end of the week, Blinken was joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Anchorage, Alaska, where they met on March 18-19 with their Chinese counterparts, Chinese Communist Party Foreign Affairs Head Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The orderly planning and orchestration of this series of meetings stood in stark contrast to the haphazard and disorganized actions of the previous Administration.

These meetings in March set the stage for the Biden-Suga summit in Washington, D.C. on August 16. In addition to the joint press conference held immediately after the meetings, three documents were issued that specified what the two leaders had agreed to: (1) “U.S.-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era,” (2) “U.S.-Japan Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership,” and (3) “U.S.-Japan Climate Partnership on Ambition, Decarbonization, and Clean Energy.” These, along with the “Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (2+2),” issued in Tokyo on March 16 after the 2+2 meeting between Blinken and Austin and their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, constitute the framework for future cooperation between the two governments.

What attracted particular attention in Japan were the passages in the “U.S.-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era” that expressed “concerns over Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order, including the use of economic and other forms of coercion.” Furthermore, “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” the document stated. The last American and Japanese leaders to mention Taiwan in a joint statement were Richard Nixon and Eisaku Sato in 1969.

The Chinese government expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the U.S.-Japan joint statement and countered that the expression of concern meddled in China’s affairs and “severely violates basic norms governing international relations…China deplores and rejects it . . . [the United States and Japan are] ganging up to form cliques and fanning bloc confrontation.” Some Japanese are worried that Suga may have gone too far in aligning with the United States against China and that he should have been “more ambiguous” in his wording. For instance, former Japanese Foreign Vice Minister Yukio Takeuchi argued that Japan had “crossed the Rubicon” and should prepare for “retaliation” from China. Suga, under criticism from Beijing, stated in a Diet meeting on April 20 that the reference to Taiwan in the joint statement “does not presuppose [Japan’s] military involvement at all.”

However, a time-honored Japanese maxim should be kept in mind: “soron sansei, kakuron hantai.” The English translation would be “agree in principle, disagree on the specifics,” or “the devil is in the details.” The four documents cited above contain specific programs and initiatives in which the United States and Japan will deepen their “global partnership for a new era.” But the documents also contain many statements of principles, aspirations, and direction. Fleshing these out into concrete actions to produce tangible results will require considerable work, since whether in the areas of security, trade, technology, climate change, or human rights, the American and Japanese concepts, interests, and priorities vis-à-vis China are not identical.

The governments of the United States and Japan have announced that the two countries are embarking on a “global partnership for a new era.” The general principles and framework have been outlined, and now the specific contents need to be agreed to and acted upon. Japan will no doubt continue its quest for strategic diversification, but how it deals with China will depend in part on how confident Japan is of America’s power, stability, consistency, and reliability.

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Glen S. Fukushima is a writer based in Washington, D.C. who focuses on U.S.-Asia relations. He served as Deputy Assistant United States Trade Representative for Japan and China, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and visiting professor at Kyoto University.

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