Although U.S. President Donald Trump continues to stew over the election’s outcome, the Japanese government is already moving ahead with the conclusion shared by most world leaders: Democratic challenger Joe Biden will be the next leader of the United States.
Following a congratulatory tweet sent out over the weekend, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga again toasted the victory by Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, on Monday morning, telling reporters that although neither a phone call between the two leaders nor a visit by Suga to Washington is in the planning stages at the moment, he is eager to work with the incoming administration.
“Japan and the U.S. are allies that share universal values such as liberty and democracy,” Suga said. “Ｗe’d like to work together with the U.S. to further strengthen the alliance and secure peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Leaders across the globe have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the prospect of a Biden presidency. This has especially been the case for those who have had rancorous relationships with Trump, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But the change will present a distinct set of challenges for Suga, who took up his post less than two months ago and inherited the legacy of Shinzo Abe, one of the few leaders to successfully cultivate amicable personal ties with Trump despite the U.S. leader’s deep-seated skepticism toward multinational cooperation.
The Suga administration must now shift gears, developing a blueprint for its approach to a Biden White House that is widely expected to opt for a return to normalcy on the international stage.
Maintaining — and bolstering — the two allies’ defense, diplomatic and economic ties will be the goal. But moving from Trump’s impetuous style to a more conventional approach will be an abrupt change for Tokyo, which has grown accustomed to the president’s mercurial manner.
At a regular briefing Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the government’s top spokesman, affirmed that Biden was the winner of the election, citing media projections and the former vice president’s victory speech. The acknowledgment, usually nothing extraordinary, came this time amid refusals by the incumbent to concede.
Kato’s remarks also came a day after a pair of tweets by Suga — one in English and another in Japanese — posted at 6:27 a.m. Sunday Japan time, which the top government spokesman described as the government’s “official congratulations.”
“It is our understanding that Mr. Biden demonstrated strong leadership and contributed greatly to the reinforcement of the Japan-U.S. relationship as vice president in the Obama administration,” Kato said. “In the U.S., too, the Japan-U.S. alliance has received bipartisan support, and we don’t think the U.S.’s attitude regarding the relationship’s importance will change.“
Going forward, Suga will be looking to lay the groundwork for an official, direct channel to Biden. The new prime minister is said to have connections with both the Trump and Biden camps, including former Obama administration officials close to the former vice president who have knowledge of Japan-U.S. relations, according to a senior official with Japan’s Foreign Ministry.
The Obama administration officials have faith in Japan’s “stable” diplomatic presence, the official said, adding that the Foreign Ministry does not see Tokyo’s influence on the global stage declining under Biden as the U.S. tries to repair its frayed relationships with European leaders.
But despite the connections, it is unlikely that Suga’s first visit to Washington as prime minister will take place before the year’s end, the official said.
In late 2016, Abe made a hurried visit to Trump Tower in New York to meet the then-president-elect shortly after his shocking triumph in the election. The move, unusual since Obama was still in office at the time, was seen as an attempt by the Abe administration to shore up its virtually nonexistent ties with Trump, who Tokyo had viewed as an outlier with little chance of winning.
Describing Biden as “orthodox,” the Foreign Ministry official called the 2016 trip “irregular,” adding that although that gamble had paid off, it is unlikely that a similar visit could be replicated, especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the U.S.
“It wouldn’t likely be well-received,” the official said.
During the election, the Biden team severely restricted staffers’ and volunteers’ contacts with foreign officials to avoid the perception of outside interference, Politico reported in June. While it remains unclear if those restrictions have been lifted now that Biden has emerged victorious, both the president-elect and Suga may be reluctant to formally send emissaries or hold official talks until closer to Biden’s swearing-in on Jan. 20.
Nevertheless, some experts say the months before the U.S. presidential inauguration will offer room to lay the foundation for ties between Suga and Biden.
“During the transition period — even one as unusual as this one is likely to be — there can be contact between Japan and the Biden camp to prepare and make inroads for the bilateral relationship post-January,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.
But Miller said this “will have to be done tactfully and quietly,” as Tokyo must also deal with “a potentially even more mercurial and unpredictable Trump in the White House.”
Still, whatever challenges await the Suga administration, it can take heart from the fact that Biden, as well as many of his top foreign policy advisers, are known quantities.
“Tokyo can expect sustained U.S. support on promoting the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific (Strategy)’ and reassuring the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance — and Washington’s commitment to alliances in the region writ large,” said Miller.
Japan may also find more ways to work productively with the U.S. in multilateral groupings, including the Group of Seven, Group of 20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. As president, Trump has repeatedly voiced his disdain for such bodies, while also lambasting Tokyo and other allies over cost-sharing for hosting U.S. troops and what he claimed were unfair trade practices.
A Biden White House will also mean that the post of U.S. ambassador to Japan, currently occupied on an interim basis by Joseph M. Young, the charge d’affaires at the embassy in Tokyo, won’t be filled until next year. The nomination of Kenneth Weinstein, president of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, had cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September, but the confirmation process stalled in the larger Senate.
Since an ambassador is usually a political appointee, it’s unlikely that the incoming Democratic president would stick with Trump’s nominee, further delaying the installment of a long-term liaison between the two allies.
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