New Administration, New Priorities Ahead for the US-Japan Alliance

December 7, 2020 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — With Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga taking power last September and a new Biden Administration coming into office at the beginning of next year, these dual transitions of power offer the chance for a U.S.-Japan alliance to set an ambitious agenda, proactively tackling shared challenges in Asia and beyond.

The Center for American Progress convened a virtual panel think tank discussion on the current state of the U.S.-Japan alliance in which foreign policy analysts and diplomats considered how the two sides should collaborate moving forward. In particular, the panel addressed the need for the allies to work together to strengthen multilateral institutions in Asia and devise effective policies to address the challenges posed by China.

“The Suga Administration… promised to keep Prime Minister Abe’s foreign policy,” offered Tetsuo Kotani, senior research fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs. Kotani, the panel’s participant from the Japanese point of view, further indicated Suga’s early-term visits to Vietnam and Indonesia as evidence of his foreign policy priorities. Also, when Suga spoke with President-elect Biden, “the two leaders agreed to work on the pandemic, climate change, and the Indo-Pacific.”

“We were a little bit upset that Biden referred to ‘secure and prosperous’ instead of ‘free and open,’” Kotani admitted, “but it was a good start to begin a partnership between two allies.” 

“In dealing with the U.S.-Japan alliance, this is going to be a rolling transition…The transition in the U.S. is, unfortunately, a little less rapid than it is in Japan,” explained Ambassador Kristie Kenney, former U.S. ambassador to Thailand, the Philippines, and Ecuador. “[Still], it is important not to lose faith that the two countries can sit down immediately and start to talk about a bold and ambitious way forward.”

Kenney said the alliance goes beyond simple diplomacy, to law enforcement, wildlife trafficking, development projects, and China challenges. “At many levels, this transition needs to be as close and as seamless as possible.” 

“The China docket of challenges is a long one,” admitted Melanie Hart, senior fellow and director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress. Highest priorities in her opinion deal with the economy and Chinese coercion. 

“The Trump Administration has taken a lot of moves, but the administration never did look supply chain by supply chain to look at what overall commercial relationship makes sense with the U.S…. and this is best done with key partners like Japan and Europe,” Hart said. 

“And as the Australia case makes clear, China’s diplomatic playbook… is to turn the screws and try to beat them into submission. Bullying is a common tactic,” Hart continued, citing China’s attempts to inflict damage on the Australian economy to “bring them to heel,” and even attempting to force the Australian media to reduce their independent reporting. 

“No democracy should stand alone in the face of this bullying,” Hart said. 

Kotani agreed that China is the primary challenge for U.S.-Japan relations.

“There’s a growing recognition that we have to address this China challenge in a robust way, but unlike in the U.S. there is still a certain hesitance in Japan,” Kotani said, offering economic dependence, geographic proximity, and the relative balance of power as reasons.

“We want to do it quietly. We don’t want to directly name and shame China and create a coalition,” Kotani added. “We understood his thinking… but the Trump Administration’s [force] was a little embarrassing.”

“We are not slaying the dragon, we are hugging the dragon,” Kotani said, explaining Japan’s interest in both hedging and engaging with China.

“[Strong statements] don’t always move the needle. Sometimes you need to have a quieter, more thoughtful approach,” agreed Kenney, who suggested that President-elect Biden’s choice for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, “is a good listener, very collaborative, which bodes well for an approach more in sync with Japan’s feelings.” 

She also predicted that, under a Biden Administration, the U.S. would rejoin multilateral institutions. 

“U.S. engagement in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN is productive and positive,” she said. 

“The biggest difference between Trump and Biden is participation in the ASEAN framework,” said Kotani, adding that China’s influence has increased in the absence of U.S. participation. 

“Definitely we miss the U.S. in the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] framework, and are expecting that the U.S. would come back to TPP at some point,” he added. “We look to Biden’s willingness to come back and lead the international framework.” 

Yet even as Suga was among the early world leaders to congratulate Biden on being elected the next U.S. president and expressed a desire to enhance bilateral ties, there are many in Japan who aren’t content with a return to more ‘typical’ diplomatic relations. 

“We respect so many who voted for the other party as well. There was a big rally in Tokyo supporting Trump, and one reason for this was because of his tough stance on China,” Kotani said. “We need a balanced approach to the alliance and a balanced approach to our thinking of American democracy.” 

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