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Americans vote for their next president Tuesday in a contest being watched closely in Japan for its impact on the future direction of bilateral relations.

There is much speculation over how relations might change depending on whether victory is sealed by incumbent President Donald Trump or his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.

A look at the relationships each man has had with Japan in the past may provide a hint as to their future priorities, as president, for U.S.-Japan relations.

President Donald Trump

In September 2016, while in New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a courtesy call on Hillary Clinton.

Most experts believed Clinton would defeat Donald Trump in the November presidential election, and Abe did not visit Trump. But after the election, Abe made sure he was the first world leader to meet with the president-elect, traveling to New York again and presenting Trump with a gold-plated golf club as a gift.

The personal touch won Trump over. Tokyo had become concerned after Trump made a number of critical statements about Japan on the campaign trail — particularly about Japan’s share of costs for hosting U.S. military bases, and allegations of unfair trade practices.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka in June 2019. | POOL / VIA BLOOMBERG
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka in June 2019. | POOL / VIA BLOOMBERG

But in February 2017, Trump held his first official meeting as president with Abe. The two leaders issued a joint statement recognizing that the Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China and Taiwan, are covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, and opposing any unilateral action seeking to undermine Japan’s administration of them. In addition, Trump and Abe agreed to further defense cooperation in the East China Sea.

North Korea fired a ballistic missile during the meeting, and Trump escalated his rhetoric against Pyongyang — to the approval of the Abe administration.

In September of that year, Trump and Abe agreed to press the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals, though his meetings in 2018 and 2019 with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un worried many in Japan.

On trade issues, there were rocky moments. To Japan’s dismay, Trump pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement upon becoming president, saying it was a bad deal for the U.S.

By September 2018, Trump and Abe had agreed to start negotiations on a bilateral treaty for goods and services. It greatly lowered or eliminated Japanese tariffs on many agricultural goods, including beef and pork, going into effect on Jan. 1 this year.

Trump also emphasized other areas of trade. During a November 2017 news conference with Abe, he said Japan would be purchasing massive amounts of U.S. military equipment, such as the F-35 fighter jet. Plans to purchase two U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense systems were scrapped earlier this year.

Despite Trump’s criticism of Japan’s past trade practices and complaints about its share of the costs of hosting U.S. bases, Trump and Abe remained personally on the warmest of terms.

After Abe announced his resignation in August, Trump tweeted that Abe was a special man and would soon be recognized as the greatest prime minister in the history of the nation. Abe, in turn, tweeted that, since their first meeting at Trump Tower in New York in November 2016, the U.S.-Japan relationship had become more robust than ever. Trump has yet to meet directly Yoshihide Suga since he became prime minister in September.

Former Vice President Joe Biden

As vice president, Biden met with then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan in 2011, and then met or spoke with Abe on numerous occasions between 2012 and 2016.

During a joint news conference with Abe in December 2013, Biden called the U.S.-Japan the cornerstone of stability and security in East Asia, but added that it was important to see closer cooperation and better relations between U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, which had become frayed over historical issues.

While Biden told Abe that the U.S. would remain steadfast in its alliance commitments to the region, and was deeply concerned by China’s attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea, the U.S. was also interested in lowering tensions here.

Biden expressed particular concern over the possibility of an unintended conflict, saying that there was a need for crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication between China and Japan to reduce escalation risks.

During a courtesy call by Abe in New York in September 2014, Biden expressed support for Japan’s efforts to join the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. In September 2015, Abe and Biden, again in New York, urged North Korea to refrain from provocative acts and reconfirmed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea when it came to dealing with Pyongyang.

But he has also courted controversy with Japan-related comments. In August 2016, in response to Trump’s saying Japan might need to acquire nuclear weapons, Biden remarked that the U.S. had written Japan’s Constitution to say it could not become a nuclear power. The U.S. drafted the Constitution, but Japanese scholars reviewed it and the Japanese Diet ratified it. There is no explicit mention in the Constitution of nuclear weapons, only a renunciation of war.

As a presidential candidate, Biden has emphasized a more traditional multilateral approach to foreign policy issues than Trump. He has called for strengthening alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Asian democracies to counter increased Chinese influence, and has talked tough on China during the campaign.

On the other hand, Biden wants to work with China and U.S. allies in a sustained, coordinated campaign to denuclearize North Korea.

On global issues, Biden said he would convene a global summit of democratic nations that would include world leaders and civil society groups. The summit would look at ways to guard against human rights abuses and preserve open, democratic societies in the social media age.

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