Japan to play placeholder role in Asia as Biden gets his house in order

When U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy gets the boot on Jan. 20, it will be replaced by Joe Biden’s more outward-looking and cooperative approach in Asia — one in which Japan is widely expected to play an integral part.

As Washington looks warily at China’s rise, it will aim for Japan to play a placeholder role as the Biden White House focuses immediately on reining in the coronavirus pandemic that has left about 340,000 dead in the U.S.

“They’ll have no choice but to take care of that damage first,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “This will be less about (the Asia-Pacific region) being lowered in priority than about repairing that damage.”

In the meantime, Tokyo “will continue to act as a ‘placeholder’ for the incoming administration,” standing in for the U.S. and buying Biden valuable time as he focuses on his domestic agenda, said Stephen Nagy, an expert on Asian geopolitics at International Christian University in Tokyo.

Beyond China, Japan will be particularly interested to see how the next U.S. president tackles trade, regional security as well as its relationships with Southeast Asia and the two Koreas, all while he also keeps one eye on the pandemic.

But divining how Japan figures into Biden’s foreign policy requires a look at who he chooses for key posts.

Biden’s team

Biden has revealed little about his Asia playbook and has not tapped any “Asia hands” among his Cabinet and advisory picks, though he is reportedly considering appointing a White House “Asia czar” to the National Security Council, signaling the rising importance of the region.

But some in Tokyo are concerned that the new administration might represent “Obama 2.0,” since a large number of the president-elect’s Cabinet picks served under then-President Barack Obama. Such a scenario would unnerve those in Japan who have viewed Trump’s tough position on China with relief after they were left to speculate if Obama took seriously the challenge Beijing represented.

This view, however, ignores the seismic shift since Obama’s last two years in office — a change that Tokyo has yet to fully grasp, said Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s Japan program.

“The consensus view of China has solidly shifted from ‘maybe we can still shape China to be a responsible international stakeholder’ to ‘China is a strategic competitor of the U.S,’” Tatsumi said.

Biden has also tapped some steady hands to steer U.S.-Japan relations in the right direction — and hopefully alleviate any fears.

“People like (secretary of state nominee) Tony Blinken and (national security adviser pick) Jake Sullivan, they have a deep understanding — based on their experience working with Japan during the Obama administration — of the importance of U.S.-Japan relations,” she said.

Japanese officials have echoed this confidence in the picks of Blinken and Sullivan both publicly and privately, repeatedly pointing to their experience as reason not to be concerned.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, feed the fish by a pond at the Presidential Palace compound in Hanoi in October. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has also spoken over the phone with the U.S. president-elect, securing an assurance in November on one of Japan’s top priorities: that the two countries’ alliance remains the cornerstone of American strategy in Asia.

This assurance also included a pledge from Biden that his administration will commit to protecting the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands under their security alliance. China, which also claims the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, regularly sends government ships to waters near the Senkakus, which it calls the Diaoyu. In August, a streak of such visits hit 111 straight days, the longest run since Japan effectively nationalized the islets in 2012. These dispatches have continued virtually unabated.

Nagy said Biden’s initial remarks about U.S.-Japan ties and cultivating “a prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific region” were intended to reassure Japan.

While a slight twist on Tokyo’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept, the remarks are expected to reassure Tokyo that Biden will stay largely on the course that the U.S. has charted in recent years, albeit with more of a focus on alliances and partners.

“These are strong messages to Tokyo that Biden will continue to be in Japan’s court and that they will continue to prosecute an Indo-Pacific strategy and hard line on China, but a much smarter, multilateral and coordinated strategy,” Nagy said.

The China challenge

The U.S. president-elect has said getting allies involved in his administration’s China strategy will be a top priority.

“The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our — or at least what used to be our — allies on the same page,” Biden told The New York Times last month. “It’s going to be a major priority for me in the opening weeks of my presidency to try to get us back on the same page with our allies.”

The incoming president and his top advisers have also signaled that while Biden won’t be delivering the same kind of fiery rhetoric as his predecessor, he will maintain much of Trump’s tough line against Beijing, with “competition” being a key word amid fears of a “new Cold War.”

Wang Yi (left), China’s foreign minister, bumps elbows with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of their meeting in Tokyo on Nov. 25. | AFP-JIJI

Writing in Foreign Affairs last month, national security pick Sullivan and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, an architect of Obama’s “Asia Pivot,” underlined this approach.

“Unlike the militarized and occasionally existential struggle with the Soviet Union, U.S.-Chinese competition is primarily economic and technological,” the two wrote. “Meeting this challenge requires the kinds of reinvestments in American competitiveness and innovation that are also critical to domestic renewal and working-class prosperity.”

Observers say this domestic economic focus will likely sideline trade issues, including those involving China and Japan, for the time being.

A return to the CPTPP?

While emphasizing international cooperation and multilateralism, Biden says the U.S. will not enter into new trade agreements until after investing in domestic workers and education. That inward-looking stance dashed hopes that the U.S. would be immediately jumping back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement facilitated by the Obama administration but jettisoned by Trump soon after he assumed office.

Still, Tokyo has never entirely abandoned its hopes of the U.S. returning to what is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP, or CPTPP, an 11-nation deal hammered out to keep the trade pact from unraveling after Washington’s withdrawal.

As Washington looks warily at China’s rise, it will aim for Japan to play a placeholder role as the Biden White House focuses on domestic concerns. | REUTERS

There are two factors that have kept Japan optimistic, according to one senior Foreign Ministry official: Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s stated interest in joining the CPTPP and the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement. The developments over the two separate trade deals — neither of which the U.S. is involved in — could encourage it to flex its economic muscles in the Asia-Pacific region in the future.

Even if the CPTPP is not high on Biden’s agenda now, Japan and the U.S. can cooperate on digital trade, supply chains and climate change, said Wendy Cutler, vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

If the two countries make progress on those issues at an early stage, she said it would help restore U.S. trust in the region as a reliable partner and could even build momentum for the world’s No. 1 economy to reconsider participating in a revised CPTPP.

“The alternative is not CPTPP or nothing,” said Cutler, a former acting deputy U.S. Trade Representative.

On top of the CPTPP and the RCEP, Tokyo is confident in its track record of concluding trade deals with the U.S., European Union and the United Kingdom despite the backdrop of protectionism under the Trump administration.

Japan will most likely stay on its course and play a placeholder role on behalf of the U.S. in promoting trade agreements, said Hideyuki Miura, an associate professor specializing in trade policy at Kyorin University. The two allies will also deepen cooperation in dealing with China’s questionable trade practices and apply pressure by revamping trade rules, he added.

Southeast Asia’s key role

Although Biden’s China and economic strategies are likely to loom large on his agenda, Southeast Asia is also expected to play an important, if less visible, part of his overall approach to Asia.

Trump himself largely ignored the region, skipping the United States’ summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the third year in a row in November. China has routinely sent Premier Li Keqiang. Suga, meanwhile, made the region the site of his first trip abroad as prime minister in October, visiting Vietnam and Indonesia.

Antony Blinken, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, speaks as Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. | REUTERS

That trip, as well as Japan’s long interest in the region in both economic terms and as a counterweight to China, have paid dividends.

This interest — coupled with Trump’s lack of attention to the region — has made Tokyo ASEAN member states’ preferred strategic partner in the event of U.S. decline even before Suga’s visit, according to a survey last January by the ASEAN Studies Center at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“As the region and the world waits for the Biden administration to become fully active, Japan could play a role in bolstering regional cooperation through multilateral frameworks,” said Chong Ja Ian, a politics associate professor at the National University of Singapore. “This includes existing ones like partnerships with ASEAN or developing new ones.”

Nuclear North

Closer to home, Japan is expected to follow the U.S. lead on nuclear-armed North Korea. Trump’s three meetings with leader Kim Jong Un resulted in few tangible benefits and Suga has offered to meet unconditionally with Kim, only for his entreaty to fall on deaf ears.

Japanese officials have said they hope to work closely with the Biden administration on the nuclear and missile issues, and are especially interested in Washington’s help in resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

But much will hinge on how the new administration’s relationship with the North unfolds. Biden is expected to take a more traditional approach, which he calls “principled diplomacy,” than his predecessor, working closely with allies and partners and bolstering deterrence in the absence of any progress toward its long-term goal of denuclearization.

Asked about Biden’s policies toward North Korea, a high-ranking Japanese government official admitted that it was difficult at this point to get a read on the incoming president’s approach.

“With Obama, strategic patience didn’t really go anywhere,” the official said of the former president’s policy of gradually ratcheting up sanctions on Pyongyang and waiting it out until it relinquishes its nuclear program.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, on June 30, 2019. | REUTERS

“However, it would be a problem if (the incoming administration) compromises (with the North) too easily. Maintaining the fundamental principle of CVID is a must,” the official added, using the acronym for the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the regime’s nuclear program.

Leif-Eric Easley, an expert on North Korea at Ewha University in Seoul, said Biden will stick to the denuclearization objective, “but may be more willing than Trump to accept an interim agreement exchanging sanctions relief for a freeze in fissile material production.”

It’s unclear how Japan would react, but defense officials have voiced concerns about the U.S. making deals with the North that would leave its arsenal of shorter-range weapons intact. Many of these weapons have the range to put much of the Japanese archipelago at risk.

Still, before Tokyo and Washington can identify a way forward together on these issues, they will have to get their own houses in order — a prescription that is not limited to the virus-hit U.S. Suga, too, will have to overcome the pandemic and criticism of his response to an uptick in cases in recent months that has hurt him dearly in public opinion polls.

This will make any attempt by Japan to play a placeholder role for the U.S. in Asia all the more precarious.

“As Suga’s approval rating is lagging, if it leads to the beginning of another string of short-term prime ministers, Japan itself will not be able to demonstrate a leadership role in Asia,” said Stimson’s Tatsumi.