Shortly after being inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders, among them pledging to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Earlier that week, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed to boost Japan’s economy through the realization of a green society and promotion of digital transformation.
In this time of crisis, both the United States and Japan have similar interests as well as many of the same challenges. Under America’s new leadership, mutual understanding and a return to political normalcy in the United States should further strengthen U.S.-Japan relations. The time has never been more critical.
The first 100 days
No president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has faced a more important 100 days in office. As a leader who has been in politics for almost half a century, Biden has put his reputation on the line. His focus is on working class Americans and the economy, as well as repairing America’s image abroad and trying to fix the “America First” rhetoric that led many allies, particularly in Europe, to distance themselves.
Returning to more normal politics is only one part of the solution, but now other matters can be addressed — from health to social justice to economic issues — in a more systematic way, at the government and technocratic level. America’s divisions are real, and we have to come back together if we are going to lead the world.
President Biden’s cabinet members and close advisors are true to his own centrist personality and level of experience. From Cabinet members such as Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to his closest aides like White House chief of staff Ron Klain and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, all are experienced hands who have held leadership positions in government before.
One of President Biden’s first warnings to his staff — that he would fire anyone who does not treat others with respect — sets the tone not just for his team but for America’s engagement in the world.
Return to a state-driven foreign policy
The biggest difference between foreign policy in the Trump and Biden eras is tone and personality. President Biden’s approach will be systematic and deliberative, backed by the entire apparatus of state. That gives our allies, particularly countries like Japan, a sense of comfort, but it also makes adversaries, such as Russia or China, nervous because they cannot as easily manipulate the president on a personal level.
It is critical for those outside the U.S. to understand that, despite Biden’s long experience in international affairs, the president’s number one priority is domestic rebuilding — to help America recover from the health and economic battering by COVID-19, as well as repair the internal divisions sown over the past years.
Foreign policy priorities will have a clear focus on climate change and repairing transatlantic relations. The Trump administration more or less continued a realpolitik of American foreign policy in Asia but in Europe there was a complete breakdown because of Trump’s unusually close relationship with Russia and coolness toward institutions like the EU and NATO.
In Asia, the new focus will be on potential areas of collaboration, such as a free and open trade architecture; infrastructure and Indo-Pacific engagement; and reinforcing our alliances in the face of the largest foreign policy challenge that Biden inherits, a looming conflict with China. The U.S.-China relationship will define his presidency and the next decade at least, for the world, and certainly for U.S. foreign policy makers.
The one area in which many expect continuity is on China, where there is bipartisan consensus on the hard line that Trump took with Beijing. Yet a new way is needed — one of engaging in a constructive trade and economic relationship that does not have to be zero-sum. In this regard, Japan will play a critical role as a front-line state next to the Asian landmass. This is where the Biden administration should work much more closely with Japanese allies to lower the temperature, while building clear deterrence capabilities for the future.
U.S.-Japan going forward
U.S.-Japan relations were extremely warm under Donald Trump and a bright spot in U.S. foreign policy, mainly because of his personal relationship with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. With the change of administration in Tokyo as well as Washington, Biden is a better fit for the Suga administration; both new leaders are political insiders whose strengths are working within the systems, with deep, technocratic support.
President Biden’s instincts and personnel selections in dealing with Asia point toward a focus on areas of common interest without dwelling on the past. It will be important for his administration to resist the instinct to distance itself from the previous administration’s work with Japan, whether on the Indo-Pacific strategy or bilateral free trade agreements. Rather, it will be critical to build on these accomplishments and celebrate our alliance that has only strengthened in this Asian century.
For the Suga administration, it is key to understand the character of President Biden and his administration, understanding that our destinies are tied together. Japan’s economic and domestic recovery, leading to the Olympics this summer, will be a critical milestone it cannot achieve alone. Recent pessimism in Japan from an uptick in COVID cases need not determine what the summer brings, but a committed partner in Washington to see the Olympics through will send a powerful signal that can transcend the traditional tricky issues of U.S.-Japan relations. Focusing on what the Suga administration is prioritizing — a digital agency, Japan’s innovation and the economy — is also in America’s own best interests.
The United States and Japan should get back to where their two economies, the first and the third largest in the world, can work in tandem to invest in each other and help economies like China’s fit in and follow the rules-based system that was co-created and maintained since the end of World War II. There is too much at stake to let domestic politics drive divisions.
Joshua Walker (@drjwalk) is president and CEO of Japan Society. Follow @japansociety. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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