Japan watched with trepidation on Wednesday as the United States edged toward an electoral crisis, with the future direction of bilateral ties hinging on an unexpectedly close race for the White House.
The Japanese government refrained from actively commenting on the election, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato hesitant to elaborate on the race during a news conference. Asked when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga might send a congratulatory message to the contest’s winner, Kato refused to answer.
“Countries around the world are highly interested in the election,” he said Wednesday. “The Japanese government will continue to monitor the outcome and its potential implications with keen interest.”
Despite the results in many key battlegrounds not having being determined by early Wednesday in the U.S., President Donald Trump declared victory, alleging — without evidence — that he had effectively won in several of them during a televised news conference from the White House.
“Frankly we did win this election,” he said. “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. This is a very sad moment.”
Democratic candidate Joe Biden, meanwhile, called for patience, noting “unprecedented” early vote and mail-in vote numbers. But he also said he believes he is “on track to win this election” and “feeling really good” about some of the Midwest battleground states.
The conflicting remarks, likely to unnerve allies such as Japan, left the fate of the election in a state of limbo as states continued to tally votes.
Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University, said this could point to the election result being tied up in courts for some time.
“The message this sends to allies like Japan is uncertainty, as the U.S. will be focused on its domestic affairs for the weeks — and in the worst case — months ahead,” Maslow said. “I am certain that allies will watch carefully how resilient U.S. institutions are in mitigating the ongoing political crisis.”
Asked about the election during a Diet debate Wednesday afternoon, Suga said he was focused on building a relationship with the next president based on the premise that the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy.
The administration of Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, had unusually close ties with Trump. The result is likely to influence the timing of Suga’s first visit to the U.S. as prime minister.
If Trump secures a second term, Suga hopes to travel there as soon as possible, possibly even by the end of the year, to reaffirm the strong U.S.-Japan alliance and overall relationship, according to government officials. If Biden emerges victorious, Suga would likely wait until next year, when the new president is officially sworn in, for his first face-to-face meeting as prime minister with the former vice president.
Suga is hoping to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2016, when the Abe administration viewed Trump as an outlier with little chance of winning and had virtually no ties to the Trump campaign. The new prime minister is said to have connections with both the Trump and Biden camps, including former diplomats in the Obama administration with ties to the former vice president.
Despite the close personal ties Abe managed to forge with Trump, the mercurial U.S. leader has repeatedly lambasted Japan and other Asian allies, particularly over the amount Tokyo contributes toward hosting U.S. military bases.
Trump has also repeatedly, if implicitly, attempted to link Japanese security and trade issues with trade practices, demanding that Tokyo cede more ground in both arenas and threatening to pull U.S. forces out of Japan if it fails to acquiesce.
But throughout his nearly four years in the White House, the Japanese government has managed to finagle its way around issues that could have proven explosive to the relationship. This has included keeping any acrimony on the issue of cost-sharing for U.S. bases mostly out of the spotlight and focusing on key areas of cooperation such as reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and tackling the growing challenge of a more assertive China.
Biden, for his part, has long maintained that U.S. ties with Japan remain the cornerstone of stability and security in the region. But he is likely to be a stronger voice on the importance of closer cooperation and better relations between its allies Japan and South Korea. Neighbors, but never the best of friends, Tokyo’s relationship with Seoul has plummeted to fresh lows in recent years over contentious historical and trade issues.
One area where Biden would find common ground with Tokyo is on confronting China. The former vice president told Abe that the U.S. would remain steadfast in its alliance commitments to the region, and has voiced unease over China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The tiny, uninhabited islets are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu.
Were he to win the election, Biden is widely expected to take a more traditional stance on the U.S.-Japan alliance and more broadly in the region. He has said that he will work to revitalize multilateral institutions and groupings that had effectively been dismissed by Trump under his “America First” doctrine.
Biden has said that he would focus on rebuilding the United States’ alliances and re-focusing on diplomacy, what he has called “the first instrument of American power.”
“America’s security, prosperity and way of life require the strongest possible network of partners and allies working alongside us,” he said in a foreign policy address at the City University of New York in July last year. “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century.”
As vice president, Biden was a strong backer of then-President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. But, with the shifting environment in the region, he’s unlikely to replace Trump’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which was originally the brainchild of Abe and focuses on building a coalition of like-minded democracies to help offset China’s growing military and economic might.
Ultimately, though, as the coronavirus pandemic shakes the economic foundation of the U.S., one thing is clear to Japan and Washington’s other Asian allies: No matter who emerges as the victor, the winner’s focus will turn immediately to domestic issues.
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