U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that of “America First” and a sometimes go-it-alone approach.

But a presidential administration under Democratic candidate Joe Biden would emphasize cooperation and coordination on defense, trade and other regional issues with Japan and America’s Asian allies — especially to counter China’s influence in everything from military expansion to cyberspace, leading U.S. experts on Asia and U.S.-Japan relations say.

“I would expect to see a pretty strong emphasis (under a Biden administration) on teamwork with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other U.S. allies, perhaps drawing in other like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region to address a range of issues. Certainly to address problems created by China’s approach to the region,” said Kurt Tong, a partner at The Asia Group who held senior diplomatic posts for the U.S. in Hong Kong and Tokyo from 2011 to 2014, when Biden was vice president.

Tong added the U.S., Japan and their allies would likely try to build stronger linkages among themselves in areas such as economic development, information systems and data policy, as well as trade, investment and other areas where they find common cause.

Biden has called China a special challenge in terms of its efforts to export its political model abroad. He also said the U.S. needs to get tough with China, and that if it has its way, it will keep robbing the U.S. and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.

In October 2019, the U.S. and Japan signed a digital trade agreement. Among other things it prohibits customs duties on digital products distributed electronically and ensures data can be transferred across borders by all suppliers. There are also measures to guarantee protection of consumer and business information.

Tong said a Biden administration might decide to take this agreement and expand it to more countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

Glen S. Fukushima, a former member of Hillary Clinton’s Asia Working Group and a veteran observer of U.S.-Asia relations, also said a Biden presidency will take a collaborative relationship with U.S. allies in Asia, rather than adopt Trump’s confrontational approach.

“A Biden administration will treat China strategically as a rival and competitor but not as an enemy. They will want to make progress with North Korea but in a much more strategic and systematic way than the current haphazard, unprepared, top-level meetings that produce no results other than buying time for North Korea,” Fukushima said.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo in December 2013
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo in December 2013

“Compared to the Trump administration, Biden and his people will likely encourage Japan and South Korea to cooperate on various issues, but especially on North Korea.”

U.S.-Japan bilateral defense matters are likely to involve related trade issues, as Japan seeks to update its defense preparedness, including its weapons and communications systems, in order to deal with China’s growing military strength and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The investments in defense-related technologies that Tokyo makes, and how to coordinate them with its alliance partner the United States, will be a key concern for whoever wins in November. Trump had pushed Japan to buy U.S. defense technology, including deploying the Aegis Ashore missile systems, plans for which were canceled in June. Japan’s National Security Council is debating the country’s defense needs, weighing what technologies will be most effective against budgetary concerns amid the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting economic impact.

Under a Biden administration, Tong said he’d expect to see a much more detailed and useful discussion between the U.S. and Japan about defense roles and missions, and which investments to make.

“If those decisions on weapons systems and the like aren’t done on the basis of cooperation and coordination, it could result in a much weaker outcome in terms of overall defense effect,” he said.

Whether increasing bilateral trade and investment in industries such as autos and agriculture would be a top priority for U.S.-Japan relations under a Biden administration is unclear. Trump has often criticized Japan’s trade practices as unfair, and his effort to encourage, or pressure, the country into investing more in the U.S. appears to be paying off.

In a report last month, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis noted that Japan was the top country for direct inward investment last year, at $619.3 billion.

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