The coming year marks the beginning of a new era in the Japan-United States security partnership, which has not only been a cornerstone of their bilateral relations but also shaped the security environment of East Asia. With Japan under the new leadership of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the beginning of Joe Bidenʼs presidency in the US in January next year, both countries are set to embark on a new direction in their foreign policy approaches. At the same time, both states are also faced with a dramatically changed security environment amidst shifts in global and regional power balance. Such external challenges, alongside potential rifts within the US-Japan alliance itself, raise several questions about the future of the partnership. How will a Biden administration impact Japanʼs strategic foreign policy choice? And, what overtures will the partnership imbibe under a Biden-Suga arc?
Potential Return to ‘Normalcy’
Japanʼs reaction to Bidenʼs victory has been divided; while conservatives have largely shown dissatisfaction with the result, the larger strategic community has expressed hope for the US-Japan ties under Biden. Although Donald Trumpʼs re-election would have offered a continuity in leadership, his frequently inconsistent foreign policy approach in the past four years put Japanese interests at risk. Not only did Washingtonʼs waning and waxing presence in regional mechanisms create room for China to expand its influence in Japanʼs immediate region, but also created divisions between the US and Japan; for instance through Trumpʼs demand for Japan to undertake increased burden-sharing – by paying US$8 billion more – under their Mutual Security Treaty. A career politician, Bidenʼs style of comfortable and traditional alliance diplomacy will be a welcome change of pace for Tokyo, thereby returning a sense of normalcy to their bilateral ties.
Views that Biden may not take as vocal and hard-lined a stand against China - which had been favorable for Japan – have surfaced with the suggestion that without a united China strategy, US-Japan ties will suffer. However, with bipartisan consensus on China in Washington, Bidenʼs China approach will primarily see a continuation from the present administration, despite not being overtly (and even unnecessarily) confrontational. In fact, USʼ China policy under Biden, albeit less combative, will likely be firmer and more measured, primed to balance Chinaʼs coercive, unilateral and expansionist policies in the region. Additionally, Japan-US ties do not “exist in a vacuum”; while China may be an essential shared concern, their areas of synergy and mutual benefit extend beyond merely countering China. Rather, for Tokyo, it is the US credibility and its active global presence that form a crucial factor for the success of their bilateral alliance; Biden brings this to the table.