With Joe Biden the presumed victor in an election for the 46th U.S. president after a tense few days, it is time for countries like Japan and India to take stock of their bilateral relations with the U.S., and also the trilateral ties between the three nations.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is yet to concede defeat (as of writing) and this domestic flux in the U.S. is sure to have an impact on its foreign policy as well.
So, where does this leave nations like Japan, a key U.S. ally, and India, which has growing ties with the U.S.?
First, it means that they will be dealing with a new administration in the U.S. with its own set of domestic and foreign policy priorities. For Japan, it could mean quite a bit of adjusting in the foreign policy domain as the earlier Abe administration had built a close rapport with the Trump administration, a relationship enjoyed by its successor Suga administration. Japan also had a change of prime minister earlier this year.
Second, for India, it means a recalibration of its bilateral ties with the U.S., which had improved rapidly under President Trump. Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. had lent its unequivocal support to India on a host of issues, whether it be the Pulwama terror attacks, the Chinese incursions, the issue of state-sponsored terror emanating from Pakistan or New Delhi’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Policy Changes in the Offing?
The divide at home in the U.S. could take a while to heal, and could also mean that the U.S. may turn even more inward than before.
The U.S. under the Trump Administration had an “America First” strategy. The fact that the Trump campaign has won close to 48 percent of the popular vote (as of now) signals that President Trump commands a huge support base who broadly support his policies.
In addition, during this period of transition in the U.S.ーsince a new President will formally take over only in late-January 2021)ーcountries like Japan and India will also need to be careful of any misadventure on the part of China. Beijing under President Xi Jinping could be waiting in the wings to test the responses of countries like India and Japan to this state of flux.
India and Japan could also utilize this intervening period to decipher what to expect from a Biden administration in Washington. It is worth mentioning here that the former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe was very quick off the blocks when he went ahead and met then- president-elect Donald Trump even before he took office. The Suga Administration could take a cue from the same.
One of the reasons for the delay in the announcement of the results in the U.S. elections has been the huge increase in mail-in voting, prompted by concerns over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The final results also mean that the handling of the pandemic is sure to have an impact on democratic countries worldwide, whether it be U.S. or Japan or India, in the long term.
For Japan, another factor will be the threat from North Korea. The earlier Trump administration had taken a radically different approach towards North Korea, as opposed to earlier American administrations, but even that did not yield much of a result. One of Japan’s unresolved issues is that of its citizens who were abducted by North Korea. How the Biden administration deals with Pyongyang must be high on Tokyo’ agenda.
Under President Trump, the U.S. conducted a series of FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations) in the Indo-Pacific region. It now remains to be seen if these operations will continue. The U.S. has always had a strong presence in the Indo-Pacific. Under the Trump Administration, the focus on this region had increased, as seen in the renaming of the U.S. PACOM (Pacific Command) as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
At the same time, the ongoing Malabar naval exercises have seen Australia become included after a long hiatus. This only goes to show that cooperation between like-minded democracies such as India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. is here to stay. Earlier in October, the foreign ministers of the Quad countries held their second ministerial meeting in Tokyo.
Now that a Biden presidency has been declared, what is clear is that nations like Japan and India may now need to take more responsibility for their own security. This is in part because the incoming administration will take some time to sort out its priorities in the initial period. This is exactly the opportunity Beijing may be looking for.
In addition, the Biden Administration may take a different line towards China and in case it is a softer one, this surely will mean a double whammy for Japan and India.
For now, Tokyo and New Delhi will need to wait and watch, while being on guard against any sudden moves on the part of Beijing and Pyongyang. As they say, “a stitch in time saves nine”.
Author: Rupakjyoti Borah
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. His forthcoming book is The Strategic Relations between India, the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific: When Three is Not a Crowd. He has also authored two other books. He has also been a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge, the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), Japan and the Australian National University. The views expressed here are personal. Twitter @rupakj