Washington Times

Three Ways the Biden Administration Can Bolster the U.S.-Japan Relationship

Japan Chair
Deputy Director, Japan Chair
Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a meeting at the COVID-19 coronavirus infection control headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on January 22, 2021 (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/POOL/AFP)
Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a meeting at the COVID-19 coronavirus infection control headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on January 22, 2021 (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/POOL/AFP)

President Biden and his foreign policy team have committed themselves to restoring a multilateral approach to global engagement, declaring that “diplomacy is back.”

While this is an admirable sentiment, it’s important to remember that diplomacy is a means and not an end in itself. It is critical that the new administration focus its diplomatic strategy on protecting American interests and deterring our adversaries.

Threats to U.S. security and vital interests abroad will require the integration of diplomacy with other elements of national power and the efforts of likeminded partners. In particular, the Indo-Pacific region demands a competitive approach to diplomacy in response to two significant threats to the U.S. and its allies: the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea and the increasingly aggressive behavior of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

While the CCP speaks the language of cooperation and responsible governance, it presides over one of the greatest peacetime military build-ups in history — threatening its neighbors, suppressing freedoms at home, exporting its authoritarian model abroad and subverting international organizations.

Beijing coopts countries and elites through false promises of impending liberalization and insincere pledges to work on important issues such as climate change. Moreover, the CCP coerces businesses to acquiesce to unfair practices, support its ambitions and mute criticism of its egregious violations of human rights internally as well as its active support for authoritarianism internationally.

President Biden was correct that the U.S. cannot overcome these challenges alone. The challenges associated with the CCP’s campaign of co-option and coercion are particularly daunting, and require a concerted multinational response. As the Biden administration pursues a higher degree of international cooperation, the already-strong U.S.-Japan alliance is certain to prove foundational to that effort.  

Building “on top” would be a more accurate assessment than the administration’s slogan to “build back” an already strong U.S.–Japan alliance. 

Although Japanese public opinion polls on President Trump were never favorable, his administration and the administration of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo worked well together. The recently declassified framework for the Indo-Pacific Strategy highlighted these efforts with Japan and other likeminded partners across the Indo-Pacific. For one, these efforts emphasized collectively promoting “a liberal economic order and preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence.” 

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, who succeeded Mr. Abe in late 2020, has affirmed his commitment to continue to work with Washington to realize the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. National Security Advisers Jake Sullivan and Kitamura Shigeru have also emphasized the importance of the alliance, as have Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo.

However, the Biden and Suga administrations should not take the strength of past relationships for granted. A “build on top” approach will require sustained investment. Here are three immediate priorities for that investment:

First, diplomatic. Put the right people and processes in place to align our strategies and extend common action to other nations. Select an experienced Asia expert for ambassador to Japan. The U.S. and Japan will need someone in Tokyo who knows how to respond to events in the region — whether it’s North Korean aggression, China’s threats to Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands, natural disasters or more.  

Continuing to strengthen the “Quad” format along with Australia and India while aligning the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul relationship is a necessity. Chinese and North Korean aggression should provide impetus for strengthening collective defense and deterrence across the Indo-Pacific. As for other countries subjected to CCP coercion, Japan is well positioned to make clear that the choice these countries face is not between Washington or Beijing; it is a choice between sovereignty or servitude.

Internationally, Washington and Tokyo should drive reform within institutions that the CCP has subverted or turned against their purpose. First and foremost, a reform of the World Health Organization is necessary as we continue to fight the human and economic damage caused by COVID-19.

It will take a competitive approach to diplomacy to prevent China from co-opting important international efforts like setting standards for the digital economy or mitigating the effects of climate change. U.S.-Japan cooperation can help prevent the CCP from gaining unfair advantages in similar global issues by establishing standards for our burgeoning digital world, expanding science and technology research and development, considering how supply chains can be restructured, and more. 

Second, military. Convince other nations to enforce U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea and act in concert to counter the CCP’s aggressive and genocidal practices. Japan’s proximity to the North Korean threat allows its diplomats to make a compelling argument for not returning to the failed pattern of previous efforts to denuclearize and try to convince Kim Jong-Un that his dictatorship is safer without the most destructive weapons on earth than it is with them.  

The Biden and Suga administrations might continue discussions on defense burden sharing while emphasizing reduced cost through the procurement of complimentary rather than redundant military capabilities. This includes finding continuity between our two national security and defense strategies. Finding efficiencies while ensuring combined effectiveness is essential due to financial burdens associated with COVID-19 relief.

And third, economic. Japan has stepped up as a leader for regional trade and investment these last few years. The Biden administration would do well to support Japan’s continued leadership on critical trade issues.

For example, as CPTPP Committee Chair in 2021, Japan could support the admission of Taiwan. And as efforts continue to implement the 2019 U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement, the Biden administration might clarify that automobile imports from Japan are no threat to U.S. national security.

Both countries must also continue efforts started under previous administrations, to work with the European Union and likeminded countries, to reform the World Trade Organization and demand reciprocal trade and economic practices in China.

President Biden and Prime Minister Suga will have their hands full overcoming the economic, health and social traumas caused by the pandemic. In the U.S., the Biden administration is building a team while coping with these challenges and attempting to overcome maladies associated with political polarization and social divisions. 

Mr. Suga faces elevated expectations for Japan’s international role associated with the influential legacy of his predecessor. Leaning on one another as they confront difficult challenges abroad may also help Mr. Suga and Mr. Biden generate confidence and unity at home essential for maintaining a competitive approach to foreign policy and national security.

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