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Japanese and US flags flying side-by-side.
US and Japan: an old friendship that needs renewing. Savvapanf Photo via Shutterstock

US-Japan relations: why two new leaders need a fresh approach to the alliance in the Asia-Pacific

When Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, global reaction was overwhelmingly positive – and, in some parts of the world, bordering on the euphoric. In recent addresses, Biden has asserted that “American alliances are our greatest asset” and pledged to maintain the so-called “Quad” of the US, India, Australia and Japan to counter Chinese hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s response to the new “leader of the free world”, though, has been comparatively understated. This may come as something of a surprise given the vitriolic pursuit of outgoing president, Donald Trump, by the mainstream media and academia in the English-speaking world.

Trump was not universally admired in Japan either – his support among the mass of Japanese voters was on a low par with former US presidents Dwight D Eisenhower, the two Bushes and Jimmy Carter. But he was notably more popular among Japan’s revisionist political elite, the right-leaning media and some conservative groups within society.

One reason for this is that he was viewed by many as a “no nonsense” president. In contrast, previous US leaders such as Barack Obama were widely venerated among the Japanese population, but he and other Democrat presidents have often championed foreign policies that were unpopular with Japan’s political elite.

The then US vice president Joe Biden shakes hands with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at a meeting in Tokyo, 20131. In the background are US and Japanese flags.
During the Obama-Biden administration, Japan felt it was being overlooked in favour of the US relationship with China. EPA/Kimimasa Mayama

For example, Bill Clinton was regularly accused of “Japan-passing” – in favour of a focus on improved US-China relations. Meanwhile Obama’s “pivot to Asia” ruffled feathers by seemingly allowing China’s ascendancy to regional hegemony.

When it comes to acting as a buffer against the supposed threats of China and North Korea, nowhere matters more than the south-western island chain of Okinawa. Okinawa’s main island hosts almost 75% of US forces in Japan as well as several new Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) facilities.

Trump upset Okinawans by demanding even more host nation support for military bases on the islands. He also strained relations with former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, when he agreed to summits with the PM’s longstanding adversary, Kim Jong-Un. Yet his relationship with Abe was closer than most. Abe’s aids even boasted that the Japanese premier was the only world leader who could communicate effectively with Trump.

Moreover, Trump’s demands that Japan contribute more towards sharing the security burden in the Asia Pacific in one sense aligned with much of Japan’s right-of-centre policymaking elite. This is because the Trump administration was in effect pushing Japan towards assuming the status of a “normal” state in political and military terms. This has long been the goal of leading conservative political figures from Japan’s ruling LDP party.

Constitutional constraints

Japan is currently restricted by its anti-militarist constitution, which prohibits the use of armed forces to resolve international conflict. Many of those relatively receptive to Trump’s demands are also in favour of revising the constitution to remove these constraints, not to mention being firmly in favour of his hard line against China.

US president Donald Trump and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe walking together during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, 2019.
Uneasy friendship: relations between the US and Japan have been under pressure in recent years. EPA-EFE/Lukas Coch

Conversely, Biden is associated with Obama’s pivot to Asia and more inclusive relations with Beijing. So there is suspicion over his intentions in the region. So far, the new president’s administration has touted an approach of continued strategic rivalry with China. This includes using Japan as a buffer against Chinese expansion. But the extent to which Japan’s newly elected successor to Abe, Yoshihide Suga, formerly the chief cabinet secretary and close ally of the former prime minister, can trust America’s acclaimed saviour is less clear.

This has been compounded by a perception of possible irregularities. However dubiously, Biden has been accused of personal and electoral wrongdoing. Interestingly, such allegations have gained more traction in the Japanese media than in many other countries. For example, many leading media sources in the US and UK dismissed Trump’s accusations of election fraud as baseless. In Japan, meanwhile, more than one source has presented these claims as at the very least debatable.

Legitimate questions

Such debate includes questioning how votes were cast and counted in key battleground states. For instance, use of Dominion software for ballot-counting has been pointed to within Japan as grounds for potential suspicion. And although not covered by many western media channels, the almost complete blackout of Trump’s complaints over the non-coverage of allegations of corruption against Biden’s son, Hunter, connected to business dealings in China, has also raised eyebrows.

Finally, the perceived hypocrisy of big tech companies that promote free speech censoring the former president’s online presence has been discussed across Japanese media channels. Even Japan’s traditionally Democrat-leaning mainstream news outlets have voiced concerns over this as amounting to censorship of free speech.

For all these concerns, Biden’s arrival on the scene has raised hopes of a more stable US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific. Nevertheless, questions remain in Japan. Is Biden going to provide the kind of regional stability befitting of “the American pacifier”? Is his administration any more trustworthy than Trump’s was?

Either way, the president’s mental lucidity, physical stamina and ability to lead the free world will remain under close scrutiny. His greatest challenge will be consolidating a US-Japan security alliance that can credibly balance against China in the 2020s and beyond.

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