Japan’s postwar peace and prosperity have been built on the assumption that the alliance with the United States is sustainable and predictable. The presidency of Donald Trump changed that for Japan and other U.S. allies.
Trump challenged the rationale for alliances, cajoled allies and competitors into trade deals, and pursued bilateral ties transactionally with little regard for the long-established relationships, protocols or shared values.
In many capitals around the world, the private hope was that Trump was an aberration and that the United States would return to its senses with a new president. Despite this view, Tokyo and other allies certainly appreciated Trump’s tougher line on China.
With this in consideration, how should Japan and other U.S. allies view the results of the 2020 election? The simple answer leads to another question: What would have been the results if the COVID-19 pandemic did not happen?
Conducting a postmortem on the election results as of Nov. 5, there are at least three major takeaways that will be unsettling for states such as Japan that rely on the U.S. for their security.
First, more than 68 million Americans voted for Trump. He remained competitive in many states, including the battleground states that were traditional Democratic strongholds before the 2008 global financial crisis. This suggests that “Trumpism” is far from extinguished in the United States. It also implies that nearly half the electorate in the United States was not dismayed by Trump’s domestic and foreign policies, divisionism and dishonesty during his tenure as president. These realities can lead us to infer that the United States will remain highly divided whoever is the next president. This means continued dysfunction in the policymaking and implementation process of both the House and Senate and the inability to deal effectively with the socioeconomic and cultural divisions that are deepening in the United States. This includes COVID-19.
Second, while it seems likely that former Vice President Biden is on his path to electoral victory, his margin of victory in the popular vote is only 4 million, a figure not much bigger than Hillary Clinton’s 2.85 million in 2016. This intimates that the Democrats were unable to dramatically enlarge their voter base despite demographic trends and midterm election results in their favor. This raises questions as to why the Democrats were not able to do better despite the 230,000 deaths in the United States that have been associated with COVID-19, the increased social divisions and the plummeting of America’s global reputation for its domestic handling of the pandemic?
Third, COVID-19 mattered in the 2020 election. Without COVID-19, Trump would have likely won the election based on the pre-COVID-19 economy. While there is no way to prove this point, it suggests that, all things being equal, there exists a large degree of support for Trump’s policies, including a confrontational approach to China, anti-immigration, transactional diplomacy, his practices of social divisionism, demagoguery and rule-by-tweet. Importantly, this support for policy can be separated from the support for Trump himself.
Where do these three takeaways leave Japan and other U.S. allies post-election?
Lingering social divisions in the United States and the COVID-19-induced recession will mean that whoever governs will need to focus on rebuilding the domestic economy, bridging social divisions and managing the plethora of lingering challenges associated with the pandemic. This means a president and U.S. government in general that will need to be domestically focused in terms of its policies but also its finances.
This has implications for Washington’s forward presence in the Indo-Pacific, alliances and its ability to expand its diplomatic, economic and security footprint in the region. Simply put, it will be difficult to advocate for the necessary expansion of defense and diplomatic budgets when campaign promises focused on rebuilding the United States at home. This is true whether it’s Trump’s “America first” promises or Biden’s “Build back better” platform.
For partners such as Japan, this economic reality means that the United States will be demanding more of allied partners. Demands will include increasing their share of the financial burden of their alliance, but also taking a more proactive role with the alliance and other organizations such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
Japan may have to take a lead role in the Australia-Japan-United States trilateral infrastructure partnership and the Blue Dot Network funded by the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. as the United States focuses on rebuilding its economy. This is a burden and opportunity for Japan to further strengthen its reputation as the most trusted partner for Southeast Asian states as found in the “State of Southeast Asia 2020 survey” by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Working with Australia, Canada and other middle powers, Japan should multilateralize infrastructure and connectivity projects under the umbrella of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision to fill the void left by a more inwardly focused United States. This serves two functions. First, it demonstrates collectively that allies and partners of the United States are willing to take on a more proactive role in the region to support Washington. Second, by re-calibrating burden sharing with Washington, allies and partners can keep the United States anchored to the region. Both will be critical to maintaining a sustainable and engaged U.S. in the region to deal with a more assertive China.
On the trade front, there was expectation that the United States would return to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) under a different president. Here, Japan and other CPTPP members should not be too hopeful. Biden’s campaign focused on “mobilizing American manufacturing and innovation to ensure that the future is made in America, and in all of America” and Trump on “making America great again.” What is clear is that voters voted for the American economy, not for an expansion of international trade agreements.
Japan’s best hope is to work with current members to enlarge the CPTPP and keep the doors open to the United States in future.
On U.S.-China relations, Trump fundamentally changed the dynamics of the relationship toward an intense great power competition. Trump challenged China on its core interests, including Taiwan, the role of the Chinese Communist Party and overtly calling out China on the mass detention of Uighurs. The trade war and attacks on China’s vanguard tech giants such as Huawei have further strengthened Beijing’s view that Washington is unwilling to co-exist with Beijing as a peer and, as a result, they have accelerated the process of their own selective decoupling from the United States.
Japan, allies and partners of Washington now must assess if these new dynamics are locked in and explore what it means for middle powers when the United States is more inwardly focused. Japan, Southeast Asian countries, Australia and South Korea depend on the Chinese economy for their prosperity and cannot support or afford to support an overly confrontational approach to China.
The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accords, the World Health Organization and the unilateralist approach to foreign policy under Trump in tandem with China’s coercive diplomacy and the deterioration in their bilateral relationship is creating a disorder in the postwar order that depended on rules-based behavior and deference to decisions of international institutions. A Biden presidency cannot easily alter these dynamics.
Japan has little choice but to continue to strengthen its alliance with the United States to deal with its security challenges in the region. There is no Plan B.
At the same time, Japan will need to continue to diversify its strategic partnerships and leadership and support in and for multilateral institutions and agreements such as the CPTPP, Japan-EU economic partnership agreement, the partnership on sustainable connectivity and quality infrastructure, and the alliance for multilateralism.
Not doing so risks navigating a Machiavellian world where might is right and the reluctant acceptance of what Bill Hayton argues is a “China world order in which countries stand on their own and make their way in an international system as individuals. This is clearly a vision in which big countries matter more than small or middle-size ones.”
Post-election, Japan and other friends of the United States should be prepared for continued instability from Washington until it gets its own house in order and continued assertive behavior from China that contributes to a deepening international disorder.
Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
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