Anticipating Japan’s Attitudes toward the US President in 2021

Japan has a very practical view on who the US president is. Throughout the postwar period, Japan’s national interest and security have been protected and advanced by the US-Japan security alliance. Its centrality will remain the same for the foreseeable future-just a reflection of geopolitical realities. Japan has to get along and deal with the US president, regardless of individual personalities and party affiliation. As a result, it has been assuming an emotionally detached and realistic approach to US presidents, as compared with other industrialized democracies. Among the G7 countries, the European countries had embraced President Barak Obama with an extraordinary level of respect and enthusiasm, largely as the antithesis to President George Bush, particularly at the early stage of Obama’s first administration. The same countries had rejected President Donald Trump with a strong sense of disdain and contempt throughout the past four years. Japanese attitudes toward Obama and Trump are subdued and detached. In short, there was never a massive crowd admiring Obama or denouncing Trump on the streets of Tokyo. 

Having said that, who the sitting US president is does matter a lot to Japan. Despite former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s efforts to establish a strong relationship with both Obama and Trump, he seems to have stronger personal ties with Trump. Obama and he did manage to have a good working relationship and moved some important diplomatic agenda items forward such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. However, Abe seemed to benefit more from the close “friendship” with Trump in terms of elevating Japan as a specially trusted ally of the US in the eyes of the international community. He was also able to secure support in advancing Japan’s grand “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision.

Japan has been paying close attention to the current presidential election with a practical approach. If Trump is reelected, Japan expects to see more or less the same president, as during his first administration. While the new prime minister Suga Yoshihide is a domestically focused politician and does not play golf like Abe, his basic game plan is essentially the same. Suga would try to establish personal rapport with Trump, taking advantage of the foundation which Abe has built. He would manage the overall working relationship while avoiding disruption in the bilateral security alliance and protecting Japan’s core strategic interests.

What if Vice President Joe Biden is elected? What would Japan like to see from the Biden administration, should Biden win in November? That is a big question explored below.

Foundational issue: US involvement in the international community

The most foundational policy stance, which Japan would expect from Biden, is re-establishment of the US as a major player in the international community. Japan sees Trump as a highly unusual president in US history. As president, he never even tries to unite US citizens. He seems to only cater to the interests and desires of his support base, particularly conservative white workers and farmers, who have felt disenfranchised by established Washington politicians. As a result, Trump is proud of differentiating himself from all recent US presidents, as the epitome of Washington politicians, who never listened to his support base. Trump assured this to his base, when he declared “I am your voice” in his inaugural speech. It is not an overstretch to say that the Trump administration has been a relentless continuation of the 2016 presidential election campaign, aiming to get reelected in 2020. 

The overall theme of the Trump administration has been “America First,” a core narrative of which is that the economic plight of his support base is a result of Washington politicians taking advantage of them while colluding with foreign leaders and not doing anything to protect them from unfair global competition. As he withdrew from the Trans- Pacific Partnership on his first day in the White House, the US under him has seen international free trade as an enemy of his support base and has demonstrated no intention of protecting free trade as an institutional asset of the international community. 

Additionally, Trump sees foreign policy as an opportunity to impress his support base, particularly conservative white nationalists; he is much more audacious and tougher than his predecessors in dealing with foreign adversaries. He had three meetings with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, without measurable success. He also withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without coordinating with the US allies, which are signatories to the agreement. He recognized Jerusalem as capital of Israel and relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. In short, under “America First,” Trump’s theatrical involvement in the international community may have pleased his support base. But it has been largely irregular, inconsistent, and high risk. In the end, it has not achieved much to advance not only US interests but also the international community’s interests. It has also damaged the leadership position of the US and traditional relationships with allies, which share fundamental political and economic interests.

Japan would like Biden, if elected, to assume a more institutional approach to foreign policy with the support of professional experts, as opposed to the one-man reality show approach of Trump. It expects the Biden administration to adopt a stable, consistent, and reliable stance on foreign policies along the lines of traditional US foreign policy. Japan also would expect the Biden administration to assume a leadership position in the international community together with its allies, including Japan, to help maintain and advance progressive Western liberal values. However, Japan realizes this may not be as easy as it might sound. The Obama administration, which Biden served as vice president, also took a strongly domestically oriented stance, not as engaging as much as it could have with foreign affairs. In fact, it sometimes seemed hesitant to get involved in critical international issues. Obama famously drew a “red line” on Syria’s Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in August 2012. A year later, Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people killing more than 1,000 people, including women and children, but Obama did not take any action. A “red line” quickly evaporated. 

Obama seemed unclear on what role the US should play in the international community.  In 2014, he expressed reluctance to get involved in problematic international issues at the U.S. Military Academy’s commencement ceremony. He said while the US remains an indispensable nation, it would no longer be the world’s policeman, adding, “just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Japan understands that Biden was involved in Obama’s decision making on the US role in the international community as his vice president. Obama and Trump are polar opposites on almost all political issues, but they share a priority on domestic issues and aversion against getting sucked into serious problems overseas. It is partially a reflection of changing geopolitical realities in the world. Challenges are numerous and complex. The US no longer enjoys dominance in matters of military, economy, and technology. But more importantly, it is a reflection of the desires of their respective support bases. There is a strong sense among American voters regardless of their party affiliation that the country has serious internal issues to be solved, which must be given priority over foreign affairs. 

Furthermore, Japan understands the necessity to concentrate on domestic issues, possibly at the cost of international issues, is significantly stronger for Biden compared with his recent predecessors. He must deal with the COVID-19 crisis, the economic crisis, and the racial relations crisis as soon as he takes office. Japan knows that US involvement in the international community is essential in maintaining and advancing the foundational values of liberal world order, such as democracy, freedom, free enterprise, transparency, and rule of law. Despite the structural difficulties mentioned earlier, Japan would expect Biden and his administration to realize that the US national interest ultimately must be protected and advanced in the international context over the long run. 

Major issues: Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, China, and free trade

Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision

Abe is probably the most consequential prime minister since Yoshida Shigeru in Japan’s postwar history. He brought stability to Japanese politics and raised the country’s profile in the international community. Achievements, longevity and international presence are rare for a Japanese prime minister. Abe has helped Japanese citizens regain confidence and, in return, they view him very favorably as the soaring approval rates, sometimes reaching 70%, clearly indicate.

One area, in which Abe made his mark, was foreign policy. It is especially noteworthy that he emphasized basic values of liberal international order, such as democracy, freedom, free enterprise, transparency, and rule of law in his foreign policy. John Hamre said “I will be forever grateful to Prime Minister Abe because he stepped forward to carry the flag of progressive Western values—all those foundational values. Prime Minister Abe carried those at times, frankly, America was confused and not leading” in a CSIS event four days after Abe announced his intention to step down. Abe is consequential because he not only talked about those foundational values of liberal world order but also introduced a grand vision, Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), based on them. FOIP was largely accepted by the Trump administration and also shared by Australia, India and other Western democracies as the guiding principles and strategies in the region. It is rare for a Japanese prime minister to present such a grand vision. It is rarer still for major foreign leaders, including the US president, to actually sign up for it.

Suga is known mostly as a domestically oriented politician. He is also not a hereditary politician with a famous father or grandfathers well-known in Japanese politics. He is the son of a strawberry farmer and a school teacher from a remote northern prefecture Akita–the first prime minister the prefecture has ever produced. He worked at a cardboard box factory, the Tsukiji fish market, and a bar for two years in Tokyo following graduation from high school in Akita and paid his way through Hosei University. 

Suga began his political career as a staffer of Okonogi Hikosaburo, a Liberal Democratic Party politician in the House of Representatives, serving eleven long years before becoming executive secretary to the minister of economy, trade and industry, when Okonogi became the minister in 1983. He finally began his own political career as a member of the Yokohama City Assembly in 1987 with the backing of Okonogi, who was born to a Diet member there and very powerful in Kanagawa prefecture politics. 

Suga was elected to the House of Representatives from the Kanagawa second district in 1996. Working diligently in LDP inter-party politics, he became minister for internal affairs and communications in 2006 in Abe’s first administration. As the post symbolically indicates, Suga spent most of his political career in Japan’s internal affairs.  He made it clear in his first speech after he won the party leadership that deregulation is his policy priority. He vowed to LDP members and Japanese citizens that he would break up stove-piping of the bureaucracy, entrenched vested interests, and bad precedents. 

It is clear that Suga’s forte is not foreign policy issues, which is quite a contrast to Abe.  When Suga visited Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington in May 2019, he did not look very comfortable. He looked much more natural and relaxed when he had lunch with Japanese media representatives in Washington at a steak house afterwards. However, Suga knows that the strong US-Japan relationship and US engagement in the FOIP vision are the biggest diplomatic capital which he has inherited from Abe. Suga does not possess the charisma and charm of Abe, but he would most likely work hard to further strengthen the security alliance and press ahead on the FOIP vision, knowing that they are the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy and the key to the success of his administration.

Four days after he assumed the office, Suga had a telephone conversation with Trump and said “the U.S. Japan alliance is the foundation of peace and stability for the region and the international community.” He continued, “I would further strengthen the bilateral alliance, which made stronger than ever with Trump.” While a wide range of issues of mutual interest, such as the COVID-19 crisis, were discussed, Suga and Trump agreed to cooperate to realize the FOIP vision.

What Japan would expect from the Biden administration is continuous commitment to the alliance and promotion of the vision. Actually, Suga has placed importance on reaching out to the rest of the Quad, the key countries in the FOIP. He talked about the importance of the vision with Australian Prime Minister Morrison prior to his telephone conversation with Trump and reached out to Indian Prime Minister Modi, following his conversation with Trump, with whom Abe cultivated a particularly close relationship, He would reach out to Biden at the earliest possible timing should Biden win the election.


The most serious challenge and significant opportunity, which Japan faces at least in the first half of this century is China, whose economy is the second largest in the world occupying about 16% of the global GDP. It is now 2.6 times as big as Japan’s economy, which is the third largest in the world occupying about 6% of the global GDP. As its economy achieved extraordinary growth, China became more confident about its leadership position in Asia, more aggressive in claiming territorial rights, and more assertive on international issues to advance its national interests. China is the single biggest foreign policy issue, regarding which Japan may feel apprehensive about the Biden administration. Will the Biden administration have a grand strategy vis-à-vis China? If so, what that would be? How much coordination will the Biden administration have with Japan in dealing with China?

Japan’s apprehension partially arises from its experience with the Obama administration.  Obama adapted a “structural reassurance” policy at the beginning of his first term, the gist of which seemed to be to accept and encourage China’s historic rise as a major economic and military global power, while also encouraging China to behave within the boundaries of accepted international norms in terms of economy, trade, diplomacy or the military. Japan interpreted “strategic reassurance” as a policy continuation of “responsible stakeholder” coined by former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Explicit in “responsible stakeholder” was that China’s strategy and behavior did not meet the expectations of international norms and needed to be adjusted. Former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who championed “strategic reassurance” in the Obama administration, in fact, said in 2009 that “strategic reassurance must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military or economic.”

In the end, Japan felt the Obama administration did not do enough to “address the sources of mistrust” to change China’s strategy and behavior to conform with international norms. It did not press China on human rights issues and decided not to meet with the Dalai Lama, when he visited Washington in 2009—the first time in 18 years the exiled Tibetan leader visited Washington without seeing the president. Additionally, the Obama administration always seemed in need of China’s cooperation on global issues such as climate change, Iran, and North Korea. Moreover, it did not seem to effectively deal with China when China unilaterally declared “core values”—such as the stability and preservation of the Communist Party regime, respect for the territorial integrity of China, as China sees it, and the preservation of an environment for China’s continued economic and political rise.

For Japan, the last point regarding China’s “core values” was critically important as Japan was having a highly strained relationship with China over Senkaku Islands, particularly after the Noda administration purchased them from a private Japanese owner in September, 2012. However, when Obama attended the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in November, 2012, he urged Asian leaders, including former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and former Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, to rein in tensions over territorial issues and did not firmly support Japan. Obama also did not protect the Philippines and Vietnam over their territorial dispute with China despite the fact that China unilaterally claimed the entire South China Sea as their territory. 

In Japan’s eyes, Obama seemed to primarily take an attitude of not offending China over its declared “core interests” even at the cost of frustrating its allies and friendly nations in Asia, which clearly lacked the ability and influence to defend their territorial integrity from China’s aggression. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said “there is no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the world’s largest economies—China and Japan- associated with some of those disputes” following the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh. Many Asian countries, including Japan, saw Obama’s approach to China as US appeasement of China. 

As China increasingly became more aggressive in pursuing its territorial and economic ambitions in Asia, the Obama administration began to talk more about “pivot to Asia” and “strategic rebalance” rather than “strategic reassurance.” China took it as US containment policy toward China. In 2014, Obama made an eight-day Asia tour visiting Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines but not China. The tour was designed to reassure allies in the region on the continuous US commitment to Asia to prevent China from having a free hand in the region. Japan was the first stop, where Obama focused on reassuring Japan of the US commitment to the bilateral security alliance. In a press conference following a meeting with Abe, he said “let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute. And Article 5 (of the security treaty) covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.” Obama, however, added the official view that the US does not take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. 

While Japan was relieved to hear Obama’s treaty commitment to Japan’s security, the president did not fully convince Japan that he would order the US military to fight a war with China over the rocks in the East China Sea. In the meantime, China continued to expand its territorial ambitions and to bully the countries in the region. Under such circumstances, Abe tried to outflank China by cultivating cooperative relationships with the ASEAN countries by visiting all of them, building strategic relationships with India and Australia, and partnering with the Obama administration in its “strategic rebalance.”  In the end, Chinese President Xi Jinping reluctantly had to reckon with Abe.

Abe primarily saw Trump’s apprehension about China, when he came into the office, in a positive way. After all, it was a dramatic shift from what seemed like accommodation of China demonstrated by the recent administrations, which had allowed China to act more aggressively in the region, to rejection of China as a challenger to the US.  However, as his practical approach to China shows, Abe does not fully agree with Trump in making an enemy out of China particularly for domestic political purposes.  Geographically, Japan is right next to China and economically China is a partner as well as a competitor. 

What Japan would like to see from Biden is careful formulation of a grand China strategy hopefully in cooperation with major allies including Japan. Japan thinks China is too important and too consequential to deal with for short-term tactical gain in a piecemeal fashion. It is not easy for the US to come up with a nationwide enduring consensus on how to deal with China because of different domestic interest groups based on national security, economy, trade, technology, and human rights. Currently, Biden’s foreign policy advisors are said to debate how to deal with China as one of the priority policy issues of the new administration but the role of allies is not debated in a robust fashion. Japan would welcome such an approach from the Biden administration as soon as the election is over.

Free Trade

Japan was startled when Trump removed the US from the TPP by signing an executive order on his first day in the office. He also declared the end of multilateral trade in favor of bilateral trade, which presumably would give negotiation leverage to his administration.  As a candidate, Trump viciously attacked free trade as the fundamental reason for the plight of American workers. In his campaign rhetoric, free trade is a totally unfair system designed to take advantage of American workers and farmers, whom he promised, as a big part of his support base, that he would withdraw from the free trade agreements, which his predecessors had signed. Withdrawal from the TPP, thus, was not totally unexpected, but nevertheless, the executive order was a shock after many years of contentious negotiations among 12 nations, spending countless hours and many all-nighters by numerous government officials, professionals, and business people. 

The US had taken the lead in expanding the little-known Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPSEP) signed by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore in July 2005. When Obama officially expressed a desire to be part of the TPP in November 2009, he clearly had a strategic goal toward China in mind in elevating the TPSEP to the much larger TPP. The US had a vision to bring together the two largest free enterprise economies, the US and Japan, and to add other leading free enterprise economies and aspiring economies to lay the regional institutional foundation of free trade. Although Japan joined the negotiations late in March 2013, it was determined to make the TPP a reality by bringing the negotiation process to fruition after the abrupt US departure–a rare moment in history when Japan demonstrated strong leadership to bring together multiple countries for an international agreement. Realization of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) elevated the standing of Japan and Abe in the international community. 

The Trump administration has aggressively engaged in many trade renegotiations and negotiations to impress his support base that he is tough on unfair trade partners. The administration renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). While Trump claimed that the “USMCA solves the many deficiencies and mistakes in NAFTA” for the benefit of American farmers and manufactures, many terms remain the same. Trump long accused China of unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft, and illegal use of technology for information gathering. The administration signed a phase one trade deal with China in January 2020 following a series of tariff wars. China is supposed to increase purchases of US goods by at least $200 billion by the end of 2021in exchange for a cut in US tariffs on Chinese goods to the US but so far China has fallen short.

Japan has reluctantly entered bilateral trade negotiations with the US because it had been Japan’s hope that the US would eventually come back into the TPP. Abe made the decision mainly to appease Trump, a political calculation that while there are some new aspects in the negotiation such as data localization and cross-border data flows in digital trade, as long as tariffs on agricultural and industrial trade are more or less within the framework of the TPP, there is not much harm. A limited agreement was reached, mostly on lower tariffs on agricultural and industrial trade. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called the digital agreement the gold standard, many others saw it as a limited agreement, which does not even require congressional approval. Senator Tom Carper, who strongly supports Biden in the campaign, called the agreement “TPP-light—very light.”

Japan ultimately expects from Biden that the US will seriously consider rejoining the TPP.  Suga clearly mentioned only several days after he took office that Japan’s basic policy of encouraging the US to rejoin the TPP has not changed at all. Japan also expects from Biden that the US will take free trade seriously. Trade is universally a difficult political issue because there are always tough adjustments to be made by the voters. The difficult political landscape is not particular to the US but to all the trading partners of the US, including Japan. It is hard to vilify free trade during the election campaign, as if it is fundamentally harmful and unacceptable to the voters, and then expect the voters to support it after the campaign is over. 

Japan expects Biden to work hard to sell free trade to the workers and farmers. Japan sees a global economy as a reality of the world and free trade as an important enabler of Japan’s economic prosperity. There will be difficult domestic adjustments to make, but protectionism will only lead to painful economic stagnation with serious social dislocation down the road. Japan expects Biden to take a realistic and sensible approach to free trade, including re-engagement with international institutions which support free trade, such as the World Trade Organization.

Rapport between President Biden and Prime Minister Suga

Abe’s role was of utmost importance in building a special relationship with Trump. He knew that a strong personal relationship is a major foreign policy asset for Japan. As Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Koizumi administration, he witnessed how much the close personal friendship between Prime Minister Koizumi and President Bush benefited Japan and the bilateral relationship. He also observed how much the disastrous personal relationship between Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio and Obama harmed Japan and the bilateral relationship. As a result, he was determined to invest lots of time and effort to cultivate the relationship with Trump immediately following the election in 2016.

Suga, who observed the benefits of the close friendship between Abe and Trump, would be determined to build a close personal relationship with Biden. Not an expert in diplomacy and seemingly uncomfortable in dealing with foreign leaders, his plan is to continue the path which the Abe administration successfully laid. He said in the Party President debate that “I would advance diplomatic issues in consultation with former Prime Minister Abe.” In turn, Abe said “it would be his duty to support Prime Minister Suga” on foreign affairs. Suga retained Minister for Foreign Affairs Motegi Toshimitsu and newly appointed Minister for Defense Kishi Nobuo, brother of Abe, as minister of defense. There will be no surprise for Biden on the fundamental positions of the Suga administration in major diplomatic, security, and economic policies vis-à-vis the US.

Suga would expect Biden’s cooperation in dealing with difficult international issues, whether climate change, Russia, North Korea, or South Korea. In the same way, his administration would be willing to work with Biden’s administration on international issues on which the US would welcome Japan’s support. In short, Japan expects to continue to be a worthy ally and expects the same from the US in the framework of preserving and advancing the liberal international order. 

Finally, as Biden called himself a “transitional candidate,” Suga expects to get to know the next generation of political leaders in the Biden administration, starting with Vice President Kamara Harris, to further strengthen the US-Japan relationship in the future.  Japan expects to build a close relationship with next generation leaders, who are expected to play an important role in the Biden administration, such as Susan Rise, Michelle Flournoy, Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Avril Haines, Brian McKeon, Julie Smith, Kelly Magsamen, Ely Ratner, Daniel Benaim. Suga, who is older than Abe, expects Biden to work together to give the next generation of leaders in both Japan and the US opportunities to get to know each other well to work on difficult issues facing the bilateral relationship.

Former Senator Mike Mansfield, who served as the U.S. Ambassador in Japan from June 1977 to December 1988, began to say “the U.S.-Japan relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world bar none” in the early 1980s. It has been almost forty years since then but the bilateral relationship remains one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. Japan sees the bilateral relationship as a foundational base to work with Australia and India in the framework of Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision.  It is also an important foundation to maintain strategic relationships other like-minded countries, such as South Korea and the ASEAN countries, which share basic values of liberal world order in the region. Japan expects much from the U.S. under Biden, if he is elected, to pay serious attention to this one of the most important bilateral relation in the world.