With a Biden administration likely to bring something of a return to the status quo for American diplomacy, Japan and the United States will be able to build even stronger ties in the Indo-Pacific, Sebastian Maslow and Paul O’Shea write.
The dust has settled, and President Trump has not been re-elected. Even Republicans are beginning to disown the president’s increasingly desperate attempts to ignore the election results, and these seem doomed to fail.
Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden has announced key cabinet picks and is preparing for office. Pandemic reconstruction, restarting the economy, and safe and speedy vaccine provision will be the utmost priorities against a likely background of a Republican-controlled Senate and a dangerously divided country. Clearly, President-elect Biden has his work cut out for him.
What will this mean for the Indo-Pacific? Pundits are divided over what to expect from a Biden administration’s foreign policy in Asia. Some claim that the president-elect has a credibility problem in managing American foreign relations in the region as some allies and partners have become comfortable with Trump’s tough policy towards China. But others dispute this view, attesting the current president’s heavy-handed approach amounted to a catastrophic foreign policy record, harming American credibility in the region.
A serious shift in foreign policy in Asia under a Biden administration is unlikely. Rather, fulfilling his campaign pledge to ‘Build Back Better’ on the international stage will likely involve a charm offensive, and the careful restoration of alliances and partnerships. Indeed, while he will be sure to argue that ‘America is back’, Biden likely represents a return to a more accommodative stance on the world stage.
Four years of President Trump’s diplomatic bunglings has left the United States’ alliances in Asia in distress. Trump’s ‘America First’ attack on multilateralism have caused problems in American alliance networks.
Among the United States’ closest allies, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan served as a model for handling President Trump, with Abe cultivating a ‘bromance’ with Trump that pledged to ‘make the alliance greater’.
As we have detailed elsewhere, Japan’s acclaimed success in alliance management quickly deteriorated into a string of foreign policy humiliations. President Trump ignored Tokyo’s key foreign policy interests, first abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership and then leaving Abe out in the cold on North Korea.
Still, that Japan was willing to sacrifice such core interests to maintain its alliance with the United States has kept relations in relatively good stead for now.
While the alliance weathered the storm, the past four years have reignited deep-rooted concerns in Japan about American commitment to Asia, as well as the alliance’s long-term prospects.
Although President Trump was the latest to trigger questions about American commitment, traditionally Tokyo elites have preferred Republicans, with Democrats being perceived as ‘pro-China’ and reluctant to commit to the strengthening of the alliance.
However, the pivot to Asia of the latter years of the Obama administration bucked this trend. The president-elect looks to follow in its footsteps, and has already named key Clinton and Obama administration figures, indicating Obama’s policies in particular will be crucial for understanding future Asia policy and the direction of the alliance over the next four years.
This is all the more relevant when one considers that the ways President Biden will be very different to President Trump; the latter seems to enjoy the presidency’s control over foreign policy and took a personal interest in relations with Japan, North Korea, and others. Transactional he may have been, he did not necessarily neglect foreign policy. The new president on the other hand, faced with the pandemic crisis, will likely leave more day-to-day alliance management to his advisers.
President-elect Biden has pledged to put alliances back at the core of foreign policy planning. He has announced the appointment of an ‘Asia tsar’ to the National Security Committee, which is responsible for managing America’s security alliances in the region. This signals that Asia will be at the top of the foreign policy agenda.
As the United States consolidates its role in the Indo-Pacific, Biden can build on a robust alliance with Japan, which seems committed to playing an ever more active role in containing China through its own vision of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and its push for the Quad framework.
Japan’s perceived success in handling a recently erratic United States has elevated its international status and enabled Tokyo to implement its own ‘Pivot to Asia’ to contain Beijing. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific was, after all, a Japanese creation, and Japan has strengthened security ties with states across the region, from India to Australia.
Ultimately, the mostly likely outcome for Japan and the United States is that the alliance will return to normal. Status quo-orientated alliance managers will regain complete control over day-to-day diplomatic affairs under a Biden administration. On the Japanese side, success in guiding the alliance through stormy seas while chipping away at restrictions on its security policy leaves the country well placed to continue standing alongside its longtime ally.