Last week’s “gathering” was the most unconventional Democratic National Convention I’ve seen since 1976, when Jimmy Carter (“who?”) was nominated and later elected president. Then a student of American politics at the University of Minnesota, I never dreamed that national conventions would be as hollow and “virtual” as the 2020 DNC.
Well, in a sense, the convention was not virtual. Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, John Kasich, Cindy McCain and Colin Powell, who took part, are all real. That said, many in Tokyo found this year’s DNC as real virtuality, since neither participants nor viewers online seemed to have felt the pulse and passion of a national convention.
Editorials in Japanese newspapers last week were naturally ambivalent. Liberal papers, like the Tokyo Shimbun and the Asahi, sounded rather descriptive and neutral with headlines like “Biden needs to unite his party of various groups” or “U.S. presidential election requires debate to overcome fragmentation.”
The Nikkei, Yomiuri and Sankei, on the other hand, were more normative and even demanding with such headlines as “We welcome Biden’s emphasis on allies,” “Is Biden’s anti-Trump cause enough?” and “U.S. presidential candidates must compete on a strategy to protect the international order,” respectively.
Many in the United States may wonder if Tokyo, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in particular, prefer Trump to Joe Biden because the former is more friendly. My friend Daniel Sneider at Stanford University wrote to me that Tokyo, still hedging its bets, “should not go down with the sinking Titanic of Donald Trump.” Rest assured! Many of us are not that naive.
I find Tokyo’s view of the 2020 U.S. presidential election as essentially fair. Major newspapers and foreign policy pundits, to varying degrees, are more critical of Trump than Biden. While watching from the sidelines, Tokyo seems to be well-informed of what is happening in the 2020 U.S. elections. The following is my take.
The Asahi’s editorial said, “In the past 3½ years under the Trump administration, which prioritizes its own base and pays less attention to other groups, domestic power struggles have intensified” and that “such politics of division led to the America-Firstism that has undermined international confidence in Washington.”
The Nikkei said, “We hope U.S. foreign policy will put more emphasis on alliances even if Trump is re-elected.” Even the most conservative Sankei was critical, saying “the Trump administration often makes light of the allies and friends of the United States” and “should not forget its important role in leading the global democratic camp.”
Questions about Biden
Despite the liberal media frenzy in the United States, the Japanese media seem to be more sober and cool-eyed. The Tokyo Shimbun said that “as compared to the enthusiasm of the Trump supporters, Biden supporters lack fever and passion. Many of them seem to support Biden simply because they do not wish to vote for Trump.”
The U.S. media almost unanimously praised Biden’s acceptance speech as one of the best speeches in his political career. I agree. However, this is simply because Biden has never been a great communicator. In the world of real virtuality, at the most important moment in his public life, he rose to the occasion.
China is the main concern
Moderate papers in Japan were more straight-forward. The Nikkei, for example, said Biden’s position on allies “is a welcoming sign for Japan, whose foreign policy is based on the security alliance with the United States. It will be more effective to deter China’s maritime expansion if Japan, the U.S. and Australia are united.”
The Yomiuri went further and said that “Mr. Biden’s return to alliances and international cooperation is welcome. But if he only returned to the policies of the Obama administration in which Mr. Biden was vice president, the United States would not be able to restore its leadership in the international community.”
Biden’s policy on Beijing?
The Sankei raised tougher questions. “What we want to ask Mr. Biden as presidential candidate is not only his basic position vis-a-vis China, which seeks to expand its hegemony, but also his determination to confront China in close coordination with the allies and friends of the United States.”
Its editorial went on to say, “While Mr. Biden advocates a tough China policy, he cannot be free from responsibility that the Obama administration allowed China to build artificial islands in the South China Sea. In addition, the Democratic Party has been half-hearted vis-a-vis Taiwan, which fights unification pressures from Beijing.”
In a nutshell, the conservatives in Tokyo want Washington to continue its current China policy regardless of who is elected Nov. 3. For Tokyo, the Trump administration has been a good partner, not because Trump has a grand strategy in East Asia, but because he and his team have always been tough with China.
The late Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping used to quote the old Sichuan proverb, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat.” Tokyo’s view is basically the same. This means “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is Republican or Democratic, if it catches mice it is a good president.”
That said, one of the things many Tokyo media often fail to understand is that foreign policy has not been and will never be a major issue in U.S. presidential elections. Any focus on China now is just Trump bashing away in a bid to win more votes, while Biden wants to prove he is 200 percent tougher than Trump on China.
It is still late August. Opinion poll numbers mean nothing. The odds between Biden and Trump will be narrower by October. For Tokyo, no time is more critical than now when it comes to its national security. Japan, unlike China or Russia meddling in U.S. domestic politics, is just holding its breath and keeping its fingers crossed.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.