Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.06.25

Trump vs. Biden: Who is better for Japan?

the japan times on June 15, 2020

Over the past few months, Tokyo has been overwhelmed by a never-ending media frenzy over COVID-19. How long should people stay home? Will there be a vaccine? When and how should business activities be reopened? This pandemic has made Japan out of touch with the rest of the world and only focused on irrelevant or trivial matters.

A typical example is "Who is better for Japan, Trump or Biden?" As early as in mid-March, I answered this question live on the radio. Biden may listen to his advisers more seriously, while Tokyo is already accustomed to Trump. Nonetheless, no matter who is the president, it has been always difficult for Japan to deal with the United States.

Newsweek Japan recently published a similar article titled, "Trump vs. Biden: Who is more likely to wage a war?" The author wrote, "Despite his flamboyancy, Trump is more restrained and non-interventional, while Biden may not be so." What an irrelevant comment on such a trivial question.

Finally, NHK World online carried a well-balanced commentary that stated that an article written by "an anonymous Japanese government official" has caused a stir within diplomatic circles. I was appalled by that article. The following is my take on it as former government official:

Was the anonymous article really written by a Japanese diplomat?

The mysterious article claims that "Japan had continuously warned the United States about China," but "Obama was nevertheless not moved to take a harder line when he came to power" and now "it looks like Japan finally has someone in the White House who properly recognizes and appreciates the challenge."

The anonymous official went on to say that "having a poorly implemented but fundamentally correct strategy is better than having a well-implemented but ambiguous strategy. We just don't want to see the United States go back again to engagement" at the expense of Japan and other allies in the region.

The official even asserted that "an alliance explicitly focused on China is better than one that is vague and unfocused, or worse yet, afraid to confront the greatest challenge." My conclusion upon reading the article three times is that the official is not a diplomat, or at least not a mature Foreign Ministry official, for the following reasons.

Trump has no foreign policy strategy anyway

The anonymous official claims that "Japan finally has someone" who has a "fundamentally correct strategy" and "explicitly focused on China." I disagree. Yes, the Trump administration has more "dragon slayers" than before but U.S. President Donald Trump himself hardly has a consistent strategy in his foreign policy.

As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis or former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote in their memoirs, Trump has been always focused on his re-election campaign. We should not be content with the mere coincidence that some of his top advisors take "a harder line" while the president continues bashing China for domestic political reasons.

U.S. China policy is consistent

Washington's China policy is consistent. It has been a combination of "engagement and deterrence" for the past few decades and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. The only difference is the priority. In his second term, U.S. President Barack Obama shifted his emphasis from engagement to deterrence.

The most symbolic was the departure of U.S. State Department official Jim Steinberg, whose famous "strategic reassurance" suggested that Washington reassures Beijing that it welcomes China's rise while Beijing reassures Washington that is has no conflict with U.S. interests. It just did not work simply because China refused to reciprocate.

A Biden administration would not go back to engagement

If the above proposition is the reality, Washington's China policy will continue to be a mixture of deterrence and engagement with much more emphasis on the former. The shift was not made by Trump. Rather, it is becoming a de facto consensus among the foreign policy/national security elites in Washington.

The anonymous Japanese official does not seem to comprehend this political reality. Professor Toshihiro Nakayama was right when he was quoted in the NHK World commentary as stating, "taking a partisan position, supporting Trump and almost insulting Obama was a very unwise act."

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Russel was also right when he was quoted as saying that, "The oversimplification, the stereotype ... that lingers still in some quarters of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, is both misleading and badly out of date." Is Russel sure that he or she is a Foreign Ministry official? I hope not.

No U.S. administration has been easy to deal with

The anonymous Japanese official is either too young or immature to know the history of postwar Japan-U.S. relations. For the past several decades, the Japanese government has always found it extremely difficult to deal with a new administration in Washington. The Trump administration is no exception.

The anonymous official also doesn't realize that China is not the only adversary Washington must deal with. If the official is happy to see Washington "finally taking a harder line" on China, he or she is watching a branch but not seeing the tree, and is overlooking the entire forest.

Finally the official is also missing the important sea change in U.S. foreign policy. Obama was the first U.S. president since the 1930s who embodied neo-isolationism: an advanced version of traditional American isolationism. Trump's "America first" slogan is just another derivative from this.

No matter how trivial the episode of the anonymous Japanese official may be, it is sad to know that there may still be a group of government officials, whether in the Foreign Ministry or elsewhere, who are neither gifted with diplomatic delicacy or subtlety. History does not repeat itself, but we should not let it rhyme again.