Like most other countries, Japan watched the events of January 6 in Washington, D.C. with shock and bewilderment. Most Japanese observers will be glad to see the end of the Trump administration after four years of erratic and turbulent polices toward the Pacific region and the world. Yet there is still a strong undercurrent of nostalgia for some of the more combative elements of the Trump presidency among a swath of both Japan officialdom and the public, coupled with fear of a weaker Biden one. This favorable view of Trump’s policy combined with pessimism about Biden as it relates to Japan is both unfounded and misguided for three reasons – a changing national narrative of Japan’s interests in the world promoted by Japan’s leadership, a superficial and largely erroneous understanding of Obama’s foreign policy, and an overly charitable assessment of Trump’s policies and actions in the region.
When Koizumi Junichiro became prime minister in 2001, a reinvigorated conservative block within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rose to monopolize the top political positions in government and thus overall policy. Three of the four LDP prime ministers since Koizumi (all save Fukuda Yasuo) have come from the more conservative wing of the party and are ideologically considered neoconservatives – including recently departed Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his protégé, current Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. The neoconservatives of the LDP have a fundamentally different perspective of Japan’s role in international affairs. Prior to Koizumi, almost all of Japan’s leaders since World War II hailed from the more moderate center of the party, the hoshu honryu mainstream. The hoshu honryu leaders opposed remilitarization and focused entirely on Japan’s domestic economic rebirth, entrusting its security to the military umbrella provided by the United States.
Neoconservatives, on the other hand, idealize pre-war traditions and the nation’s military strength of that time while loathing the pacifist ideology of post-war Japan. They believe in a more assertive and militarily powerful Japan. Neoconservatives argue for a proactive security and foreign policy combined with a more robust image of Japan. Equally, they distrust China’s rise and reject North Korea’s bellicose policies. They believe these two threats need to be neutralized through a vigorous military posture. Over the past 20 years, as neoconservatives took control of the LDP and the government, this message has slowly but surely become the dominant narrative despite having been on the margins of public debate prior to Koizumi.
Seen through this lens, the unfavorable appraisal of the Obama administration’s policies by some in Japan is not surprising. Exhibit A is the anonymous Japanese writer from within the government who criticized Obama’s policies in an article last April. The article emphasized President Barack Obama’s weakness for willfully neglecting to contain or confront China. This is an oversimplified and superficial reading of events. From a more balanced perspective, the approach of the administration can be surmised as a holistic strategy to manage the challenge of an ascending China. Indeed, Obama was quick to realize both the economic importance of the region and China’s growing influence. He moved swiftly to shift resources in a “Pivot to Asia” strategy. Most in the region welcomed the effort as a counter-balance to China while noting America’s effort to re-engage partners in the region.
To claim weakness on the part of the Obama administration seems ironic as the emphasis on security elements led to complaints about the overzealous military nature of the Pivot. Many countries in the region were wary of a great power clash forcing nations to choose sides. The military components included the commencement of regular freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, an agreement allowing for the stationing of 2,500 rotating troops in Australia, and a general movement of more military assets to the Asia-Pacific region. Specifically for Japan, Obama recognized its control over the China-claimed Senkaku Islands, meaning they were covered by the security treaty between the countries.
The military aspect of the Pivot, however, was only one element of the overall strategy to shape the rise of China. The political and economic planks of the strategy were even more consequential in rooting the region to the United States’ vision. The Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama team was at the heart of the Pivot. It set out the basic principles and rules for trade in the region. Moreover, the fortifying of alliances also loomed large in the Pivot. The United States became a member of the annual East Asian Summit, and high-level administration officials, if not the president himself, were a constant presence at regional meetings including the ASEAN Regional Forum and APEC summits. In essence, the main goal of the Pivot strategy was to encourage constructive Chinese behavior yet let it be known to U.S. partners that any excessive Chinese hostility would be met with robust economic, diplomatic and military resources.
The criticism of Obama’s policies and, conversely, the admiration of Trump’s foreign policies by some in Japan is perplexing at best. This perspective seems to ignore the Trump administration’s overall haphazard Asian strategy. It has been a mixture of diplomatic withdrawal (evidenced in absenteeism from regional summits as per the America First doctrine), showmanship with North Korea, and antagonistic trade practices with allies and foes alike.
Trump’s foreign policy toward Japan in particular includes outlandish, extortion-like demands for a quadrupling of costs to cover the hosting of U.S. bases in the country, tariffs on steel and aluminum with more threatened on autos, and a complete about-face on North Korea, throwing then-Prime Minister Abe under the bus. After agreeing with Abe to promote maximum pressure of sanctions on North Korea and bringing the world to the edge of nuclear war, Trump suddenly, and without consultation, in 2018 began his bromance and love letter exchange with the Korean dictator. Along with that came a willingness to overlook North Korean military progress below the red line of intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests. As a result, Japan is now much more vulnerable to attack. North Korea has significantly added to its arsenal of nuclear weapons and its capacity to fire them, including the recent unveiling of a new long-range land missile and submarine launch capabilities.
On the China file, Trump’s policies have been similarly schizophrenic, going from greenlighting China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and people of Hong Kong to then condemning them. There was cooperation with China at the outset of the Trump administration, then trade conflict in the mid-term, and finally all out confrontation at the end of his administration. But even during the middle period of trade disputes, Trump claimed to continue to be on good terms with the Chinese. Trump’s stance, however, quickly changed again with the onset of COVID-19. China has now become public enemy number one in the United States. Neoconservatives in the administration, beginning with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were only too happy to ratchet up the enmity they had been holding back. Japanese observers who were content with the onset of hostilities should have been very wary. It is likely that had Trump won a second term, he would have moved very quickly to restore the relationship with China once the virus was under control in order to secure a rapid restart to the economy. The tough-on-China stance would have vanished, mirroring the reversal Trump had with North Korea.
With the incoming Biden administration, Japan can at a minimum look forward to stable, consistent, and predictable relations. Biden has said the first task of the administration will be to reassure and re-engage friends and allies after four years of essentially America alone. The Biden foreign policy team is keenly aware that by being at the multilateral table, the United States can advance its own interests, strengthen its alliances, and retrain its adversaries. They understand that the U.S. has an outsized impact on international organizations and heavily influences which norms and rules of acceptable international behavior are adopted. These international organizations and the standards they promote are the lifeblood of middle powers such as Japan, allowing them the space to maneuver on the global stage.
Biden’s policies cannot be Obama 2.0, as the world has changed. Facing China, Biden will need to place more emphasis on competition than Obama did. Yet, in the Pacific region, as Biden’s new coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, noted in a recent essay, “the Indo-Pacific future [should be] characterized by balance and twenty-first century openness rather than hegemony and nineteenth-century spheres of influence.” While this may not be what Japanese neoconservatives want to hear, it should be music to most ears.
Carlos Ramirez is an associate professor of international politics in the Faculty of International Studies at Kindai University, Osaka.