President-elect Joe Biden had a pleasant surprise for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during their first phone conversation after the U.S. presidential election. In what was expected to be a cordial congratulatory call without policy discussion, Biden explicitly stated America’s commitment to protect the Senkaku Islands, citing Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
At the time, Americans were preoccupied with the political aftermath of the still-contested election, but Japanese observers paid close attention to the first contact between the two new leaders, especially since the first encounter between their predecessors shaped U.S.-Japan relations for the past several years.
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Four years ago, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe became the first foreign leader to meet with President Trump, soon after his election victory in November 2016. This fact was never lost on Trump; throughout his presidential administration, the relationship between the two men was strong, which benefited the alliance as the two countries worked to create a united front against China’s increasing international aggression.
In 2016, policymakers on the Japanese side were concerned about the U.S. conceding much of its interest in the Pacific to China, as part of “a grand bargain” that would diminish U.S. commitment to Japan and other allies in the region. Trump’s successful campaign made this scenario less likely, but the Japanese understood that their country relies more on American support in constraining China’s expansive regional ambitions than vice versa.
Fast-forward to 2020, and we see a new political reality in the bilateral relationship — the U.S. needs Japan as much as Japan needs the U.S. in facing the challenges of China’s rise to a global superpower. The fact that Biden mentioned his commitment to Senkakus — largely unsolicited, although the Japanese side allegedly dropped some hints — suggests an American desire to shore up support from Japan.
With China now viewed as a shared rival — if not outright enemy — how will the two leaders shape regional dynamics in coming years? On security, tensions around the Senkakus almost certainly will rise, and a credible threat of U.S. military action is likely the most effective deterrent of China’s provocations that could escalate the conflict over territorial claims there. Biden surely will work hard to rebuild the trust of other allies in the region, with the hope of containing China through multilateral alliances. South Korea is a particularly important partner in this effort, and Suga would be wise to rehabilitate Japan-ROK relations that have been marred by complicated historical issues. The U.S. can help mediate the process.
Similarly, on economy and trade, multilateral frameworks such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will become more important, and Japan will continue to encourage the U.S. to participate in these agreements. However, this might not be realistic given the domestic political environment in the U.S. The best-case scenario in the short term is probably the U.S. valuing the World Trade Organization (WTO) again. In this vein, the U.S. regaining the trust and respect of Europe is important, because China continues to lure European countries with its attractive economic and trade packages.
On environmentalism, both Suga and Biden have declared that their countries will work toward zero emissions by 2050. On this issue, China’s cooperation is critical. While China also has committed to working toward zero -emissions by 2060, it likely will use this issue to gain other concessions from the U.S. Biden may face a difficult political decision at some point on whether to a) compromise on environmentalism and incur the wrath of the left wing of the Democratic party or b) sacrifice U.S. national interest in other areas for an agreement on environmentalism and risk losing support from independents and moderate Republicans. Japan would worry about the latter scenario.
Finally, Biden is expected to be more involved than Trump regarding China’s human rights issues. He’s likely to call out situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among others. Japan will join the chorus, and mix in the North Korean abduction issue, which largely has been silenced internationally as a consequence of Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong Un. China will counter these criticisms by pointing to racism in the U.S. as evidence of American hypocrisy. This might embarrass the U.S. but can be a net positive, if China’s naming and shaming leads to more efforts by the U.S. government to address racism. This dynamic is reminiscent of the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union countered America’s criticisms of civil and political rights violations by pointing to racism in the U.S., facilitating advancements during the civil rights movement.
Overall, on hard issues such as security and trade, a drastic change is unlikely; rehabilitating relations with allies, and revaluing multilateral frameworks, will be the most likely changes under a Biden administration. On more values-oriented issues such as environmentalism and human rights, domestic politics in the U.S. plays a significant role in shaping Biden foreign policy. Assuming that Democrats don’t win both of the Senate seats in Georgia’s runoff elections, Biden will face a Republican Senate that can block appointments for key cabinet positions and some of his foreign policy priorities.
For Japan, Biden’s remark about the Senkaku Islands was an excellent start. With such a commitment secured, Suga can play the diplomatic game from a position of strength and mediate between the U.S. and China. This is a role that Japan can thrive in, as its shrewd management of relationships with both the U.S. and China in the past few years indicates. Japan’s success in playing this role could define international relations in the Asia-Pacific for the next decade or two.