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Japan’s Joe Biden Problem





How long will it take before Japan looks back on the Trump presidency with nostalgia?  It may happen sooner than you think.


If Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election, as polls currently indicate, the focus of his policies will be overwhelmingly domestic.  


As noted by James Crabtree, associate professor at the Lee Kuang Yew School of Public Policy, the four priority areas Biden stressed at the Democratic convention were green energy, racial justice, health care and affordable housing. Foreign policy didn’t get a look-in.


As he tackles these and other complicated issues, the last thing Biden will want is a high-risk confrontation on the other side of the Pacific. This could provide an ideal opportunity for China to advance long-held strategic ambitions, just as it did in the South China Sea during the similarly domestically focused Obama administration, in which Biden held the position of vice-president. 


In all likelihood, North Korea will be on the backburner too, giving Kim Jong-Un full rein to expand his activities. Japan may find itself dealing with any regional flare-ups alone or in cooperation with other friendly powers, while the new president offers only comforting words and gestures. 


Biden is committed to restoring the multilateralism and democratic alliances that President Donald Trump junked. He would sign up to the Paris climate agreement and mend relations with key NATO allies such as Germany. Regardless of the merits of such an approach, it will by definition involve a downgrading of relations with Japan, which had become the U.S.’s paramount partner under Trump. 


One thorny issue that is likely to come up is Japan’s relations with South Korea. Trump distrusted the South Korean approach, intensified under President Moon, of triangulating between China and the United States while being protected from its aggressive northern neighbor by the American military. Hence Trump’s demand for a quintupling of the payments that South Korea contributes to the expenses of U.S. forces in Korea and the hard line on trade. Japan, by contrast, was treated gently, despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail in 2016.


Under Biden, we may well see a reversion to equal treatment of Japan and South Korea and attempts to bring them together by “knocking heads.”  Biden himself is a moderate, but his party, and particularly the intellectuals and media organizations close to it, are highly sensitized to “culture war” issues.  For them, historical disputes over the comfort women, forced labour and other matters dating back to the colonial era mean that Japan will always be the guilty party and therefore the one that must make concessions.




Back to an Obama-era Priority Perception Gap


A trivial but telling example of virtue-signalling drowning out realpolitik occurred early in Obama’s second term. American Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy tweeted her “deep concern” about the annual dolphin cull at a small Japanese fishing town. Such “inhumaneness”, she said, was opposed by the U.S. Government. Japanese twitterati exploded in indignation over her remarks, and the Japanese government’s hard-hitting riposte came from none other than Yoshihide Suga, the current prime minister. While this was happening, China was stepping up the island-building program that would soon give it effective control of the South China Sea. There were no tweets about that.


It is a cliché that U.S.-Japan relations are stronger under Republican rather than Democrat administrations, but one that has substance. The “Ron-Yasu” relationship between Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s provided the template. In the early years of this century, Junichiro Koizumi developed a good relationship with George W. Bush, unforgettably marked by Koizumi’s Elvis Presley karaoke performance. Likewise, Shinzo Abe, breaking protocol, visited Donald Trump just days after his election victory in 2016, and was the only world leader to develop a constructive relationship with him. 


Not coincidentally, these are the three most successful Japanese prime ministers of the last fifty years. Meanwhile, no such relationships were created with Democrat presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.


During the Cold War years, the rationale was clear. The Republicans were more hawkish on national security policy and viewed American bases in Japan as an indispensable bulwark against communism on the Soviet Union’s eastern flank. At the same time, their attachment to free market ideology made them less troubled by trade friction and job losses.


For the Democrats, who had a vast blue collar constituency, it was the other way around. That is why in the 1980s the blood-curdling protectionist rhetoric came from Democrat politicians like Richard Gephardt, Tip O’Neil and even future ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale.


In the post-Cold War world, the situation is more complex. Under George W. Bush, who was fighting several wars simultaneously in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, Japan was valuable for its political support and status as the linchpin of U.S. power in East Asia. 


Under Obama, who was keen to steer clear of foreign entanglements, that was much less the case. At times he seemed to flirt with a “G2” approach in which the U.S. and China would co-operate on global issues such as climate change.


President Donald Trump overturned the free market / free trade orthodoxy of the Republican Party, yet the confrontation with China that developed under his presidency once more raised the value of the alliance with Japan – militarily, but also in terms of high technology and finance. Cold Wars tend to benefit Japan.




Biden’s Inclinations Favor Atlantic Allies


Where does Biden fit in? As an old-school Democrat with appeal to blue collar workers, he is no free trader. In an April article for Foreign Affairs magazine, he stated “I will not enter into any new trade agreements until we have invested in Americans and equipped them to succeed in the global economy.” That would seem to scotch any immediate prospect of the U.S. joining the Trans Pacific Partnership, which is now led by Japan and known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership


Much of Biden’s article is idealistic in a somewhat retro way, but also cautious as he promises to “elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy.” He affords Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has a GDP the size of Italy’s, equal billing with China. Given the emphasis he gives to repairing relations with NATO allies, the impression is of a much more “Atlanticist” approach.


The Biden China policy consists of building “a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”  Which sounds fine until it collides with the concrete reality of Chinese intransigence and the differing national interests of allies.    


Joe Biden’s approach may be excellent for the U.S., yet pose serious risks for Asian allies. Instead of staking its security on the twists and turns of American politics, the time is ripe for Japan to amend its postwar constitution, beef up its defense capability and organize its own network of alliances.


Author: Peter Tasker