No matter who emerges as the victor in Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election, for Japan and other Asian allies, one thing is looking clear right out of the gates: The winner’s focus will turn immediately to domestic issues.
From the coronavirus pandemic to protests against racial injustice to growing economic disparities, the incoming administration, whether it is led by Donald Trump or Joe Biden, will have its hands full at home.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served during the administration of Bill Clinton, encapsulated the view among many in the United States during an online discussion last week.
“People are totally consumed by the domestic aspects of what is going on here, which is COVID and the economy and health care,” she said.
But despite fears among allies and partners in Asia that the dire domestic situation in the U.S. could force it to take its eyes off the region, this may not be the case since the issues inside its borders are profoundly tied to those happening outside.
All of these issues could be classified as “intermestic,” blending elements of international and domestic concerns, Albright said.
“I think they all have an international context,” she added.
Other former U.S. officials and experts say that Washington can chew gum and walk at the same time in terms of addressing both domestic and foreign policy issues. Quickly getting its own house in order, they say, could even renew any lost confidence in the United States by its allies.
“It does not have to be one or the other, and indeed, to the extent that foreign countries are trying to assess U.S. staying power, addressing domestic issues can actually bolster American credibility on the world stage by demonstrating the U.S. capacity for renewal,” said Jacob Stokes, an analyst at the United States Institute of Peace think tank in Washington who previously served on Biden’s national security staff during his time as vice president.
First on the to-do list for the next U.S. leader will be getting a better handle on the pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 and devastated the country’s economy. On Friday, the U.S. reported nearly as many cases in a single day — some 99,000 — than the total recorded in Japan since the pandemic began.
“If we don’t get this virus and the pandemic under control, we’re not going to have the bandwidth as a society, economically, politically, you name it, to focus on the world,” said Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, who joined Albright for the panel discussion.
This was seen earlier this year, when an anonymous senior Japanese official, writing in The American Interest magazine, said that while Trump’s Asia policy left much to be desired, its strong focus on China via the U.S. alliance with Japan, “is better than one which is vague and unfocused, or worse yet, afraid to confront the greatest challenge.”
As for Biden, Japanese officials are concerned that the former vice president’s core team could consist of many veterans of Barack Obama’s White House, including former national security adviser Susan Rice. Both Biden and Rice, who was a contender for the vice presidential candidate slot ultimately filled by Kamala Harris, won few friends in Nagatacho, Japan’s political heart, early in the Obama administration for what was regarded as a soft stance on China.
The pair had at one point been strong advocates of China’s pitch for a new “G2” era of “great-power relations” — a scenario that Tokyo viewed as excluding Washington’s allies from the global decision-making process.
Some experts, however, say concerns among some corners of the Japanese government about a more inward focus are unfounded, regardless of who wins.
Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, said that although he isn’t worried about the next U.S. president’s focus on domestic issues once he is sworn in, the transition period could pose an understated threat.
“What worries me the most is the confusion after the presidential election,” Sahashi said.
The period from Nov. 3 to the U.S. president’s swearing in on Jan. 20, Sahashi speculated, could see some countries in the region such as China and North Korea “seek opportunities to change the status quo,” including in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula.
Tensions this year between the U.S. and China over Taiwan have surged to levels unseen since the last major crisis in the area in 1996, while Washington and its allies and partners have ramped up joint military activities in the disputed South China Sea, prompting concerns of an accidental clash.
North Korea, meanwhile, unveiled its largest-ever mobile intercontinental ballistic missile just three weeks ago as leader Kim Jong Un vowed to “continue to strengthen” his country’s “war deterrent” — a euphemism for its increasingly powerful nuclear weapons program.
But much about how a transition will unfold will also depend on the outcome of the election.
Observers say that if Trump is re-elected, the amount of attention devoted to Asia is likely to remain steady. While some changes to a second administration would be expected — top Asia adviser Matthew Pottinger is reportedly set to leave sometime next year, for example — there simply won’t be a large-scale transition for the U.S. government.
If Biden wins, however, things would get more complicated.
In such a scenario, his transition team will be looking to bring in a raft of new political leaders throughout almost all levels of the federal government, including the departments and agencies focused on foreign policy.
According to Stokes, who is not involved with the Biden campaign, presidential transitions are historically difficult regardless of party, simply because they involve moving thousands of new people into top policymaking jobs.
“But Washington always has ‘eyes’ on Asia through its career diplomats, the intelligence community, and the military, and they will remain laser-focused on regional events,” he said.
And while challenges abound, Japanese officials are hopeful that the U.S. can weather the storm.
“It’s a fact that the U.S. is suffering from splits and divisions, but looking back on history, American democracy has been resilient and I fully expect it will continue to function,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Still, regardless of whether the United States can continue to function smoothly, the reality on the ground is that the changes wrought by the challenges it has faced and continues to face have transformed the country and its relationship with both Japan and the world.
Experts say a return to the halcyon days of an America at the forefront of international affairs are now over.
A stable U.S. after the election “does not mean an internationalist America is coming back like in the past,” said Sahashi.
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report
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