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Editorial: Japan should rebuild bilateral alliance with incoming Biden administration

With Democrat Joe Biden having secured victory in the U.S. presidential election, it is expected that U.S. foreign and security policy will undergo adjustments. Under these circumstances, it may be necessary to restructure the Japan-U.S. alliance.

 

President Donald Trump, with his “America First” policy, made light of U.S. relations with the country’s own allies. He asserted that the U.S. was shouldering an unfair financial burden, and pressed allies to cover a bigger share, even threatening to review alliances.

 

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to prevent the Japan-U.S. alliance from faltering by building a personal relationship of trust with President Trump. However, criticism abounded over Abe’s compliance in bulk purchases of American-made defense equipment, with some blasting him for “flattering the U.S.”

 

Unlike Trump, President-elect Biden reportedly intends to strengthen coordination with allies including Japan, South Korea and NATO member states.

 

In his first telephone talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, both Biden and Suga affirmed a policy of reinforcing the bilateral alliance.

 

That said, American power has been waning in the world in relative terms. The Japan-U.S. alliance has already undergone a transformation from a pact previously backed by America’s overwhelming military might.

 

It was during former President Barack Obama’s administration — when Biden served as vice president — that the U.S. began to step up its inward-looking policies. Obama said America was “not the world’s policeman” and steered the country away from involvement in overseas conflict.

 

Once the Democrats return to power, the U.S. defense budget will be curtailed as the party attaches weight to welfare and employment policies. Biden has hinted at asking U.S. allies to shoulder a fair share of the financial burden of alliances.

 

If the U.S. decreases its involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, it may give rise to a power vacuum and destabilize the region. It is essential for Japan to retain Washington’s interest in the region.

 

The biggest challenge is how the U.S. will face up to China to secure regional peace and stability as Beijing advances its military buildup and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

 

Biden has vowed to cooperate with U.S. allies and friends to bring China into compliance with international rules over economic and security issues. He has also condemned Beijing for human rights issues in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

 

In the U.S. Congress, there is growing awareness of China as a threat among members, regardless of party lines. Some lawmakers believe the U.S. hard-line stance toward China will not undergo a significant change.

 

In his telephone conversation with Prime Minster Suga, President-elect Biden suggested that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which stipulates the U.S. defense commitment to Japan, would be applied to the Senkaku Islands in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. Biden’s statement was apparently a message directed at China that Washington will maintain its basic stance toward Beijing.

 

Suga urged Biden to agree that, in addition to bolstering the bilateral alliance, both countries will cooperate in realizing a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The strategy evolves around enhancing collaboration with Australia, India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other parties with the Japan-U.S. alliance serving as a basis.

 

As Japan is sandwiched between China and the U.S. amid their ongoing conflict, Tokyo should turn this regional strategy into a framework to bring China into the international order by disseminating the universal values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law, among other principles, rather than making it a “coalition against China” in both the security and economic spheres.

 

One pending issue between Tokyo and Washington is negotiations over the cost of hosting U.S. military bases in Japan.

 

American bases in Japan serve as a key strategic hub for U.S. forces in keeping an eye on the Indo-Pacific region, and Washington gains significant benefits from those facilities. Japan needs persevere in its explanations regarding its contributions, and scrutinize how much of the cost of maintaining U.S. bases it should shoulder.

 

The Japan-U.S. alliance is built upon stable operation of American bases in Japan, which is supported by the understanding of local residents in areas where those facilities are located. For this reason, too, the excessive burden shouldered by Okinawa in hosting bases should be alleviated.

 

Meanwhile, using the transition of the U.S. administration as an opportunity, Japan should consider reviewing the controversial plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the city of Nago in the prefecture.

 

Compared to similar pacts overseas, the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement has many points that are strikingly unfair to Japan. It is about time Tokyo and Washington initiated discussions to rectify the accord.

 

President Trump’s policy toward North Korea was primarily characterized by summit diplomacy between him and Kim Jong Un, but Trump failed to achieve progress over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development programs. President-elect Biden has indicated that he will not engage in summit talks with Kim unless North Korea denuclearizes itself. Japan should closely coordinate with the U.S. to seek clues to resolving the issue of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents.

 

Japan is urged to hold repeated discussions with the new U.S. administration over how to capitalize on the bilateral alliance to promote regional peace and prosperity, with Tokyo proactively contemplating the future shape of the alliance.

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