US election seen from Japan: Will US lead again?
Junko Tanaka is a former Washington bureau chief for NHK, Japan's national broadcaster. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Carlos Santamaria: What are two or three issues that people in Japan are concerned about regarding the US election?
JT: First and foremost, we're keen to find out the implications of the election for US foreign policy and trade policy. The US election is normally determined by domestic issues, but there is a stark contrast between Trump and Biden on their world views. We're interested to see how the foreign policy debate unfolds on issues such as relations with China, with Russia, or with traditional allies like Japan and NATO countries. We're also watching how trade issues or global issues may or may not be debated.
For us, Trump represents a protectionist view, whereas Biden has more of an internationalist view. And all this can greatly impact not only US-Japan relations, but international affairs as a whole.
Secondly, we're interested in which candidate has a more viable plan to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and recover the economy at the same time. We were shocked to see the US, the superpower of the world, suffer the most from this pandemic. President Trump seems to be paying a political price to a certain extent, but we don't know how much. We're not sure whether Biden has a specific plan to pull this country out of this situation.
Lastly, another angle is whether the legitimacy of the election will be preserved this year, in a pandemic. We are interested to see how the actual voting will work in this situation, and whether the outcome of the election is respected by both sides.
In more general terms, we understand that American society is so polarized now that the outcome will suggest which side is more upset and has more political force. The big question is how people in the middle, the "silent majority," are feeling and voting. Overall, we're interested in where the center of gravity in US society is, and in which direction it is shifting because that can have an enormous impact and ripple effects throughout the world — just like the election four years ago of Trump prompted the rise of anti-establishment populism in other countries, and that affected geopolitics around the world.
CS: How would you say that the 2016 outcome of the election affected Japan?
JT: I would say mixed. When Trump was elected in 2016, many people in Japan, including myself, were taken as surprised. Just like many other people in the world. But I would say we were relatively quick to adapt to the new reality. There is more or less a consensus in Japan that whoever the US president is, whether you like him or not, we need to maintain strong relations with the US. We can't afford to have a bad relationship. So when other leaders of the world, especially in Europe, distanced themselves from Trump, Prime Minister Abe flew to New York right after the election to become the first world leader to greet the president-elect, and declared that Trump was the leader we could trust. Ever since, Abe has been very careful not to offend President Trump and has been seen as one of Trump's close partners. Maybe for that reason he has avoided the outright humiliation by President Trump that other leaders in Europe experienced, and US-Japan relations have been relatively stable.
However, we also understand the transactional nature of foreign policy by President Trump. It is obvious that President Trump doesn't care much about the mutual benefit of the alliance mechanism. His focus in dealing with allies is the balance sheet, whether in terms of trade or defense burden-sharing. Although not as strongly as the Europeans, Japan has certainly been feeling the pressure from the US. And we wouldn't be surprised if President Trump one day decides to demand much higher contribution from Japan by suggesting a possibility of withdrawing the US troops from Japan. So, there is always this little cloud of unpredictability hanging over our head when it comes to President Trump. But we also have to understand that his stand reflects a certain public opinion in the US, who say they are tired of being the policeman for the world.
CS: What would you say are the stakes for Japan if Trump is reelected, or Biden wins?
JT: Well, we feel that the US-Japan bilateral relation is basically stable, no matter who is in the White House. However, the tone with the relations may change depending on the outcome of the election, because the two candidates have completely different views about the alliance mechanism. If Trump is reelected, he might become tougher on Japan. Biden has a more traditional and comprehensive view of the alliance mechanism. Biden will be more predictable, and we may feel a little more secure about the stability of the alliance.
Another important factor for us is relations with China. China is our neighbor, and even though we have differences, Japan would like to avoid too much tension with this rising superpower. Therefore, we hope that whoever is the next president can strike a right balance in dealing with China. Right now in this election, the two candidates are competing with each other: Who is tougher on China? But we want to see their true intentions beyond the election. One thing for sure is we don't want to see a new Cold War. The most important thing from Japan's point of view is that a strong US presence remains in the region because if the US withdraws, China will fill the vacuum and set the rules of conduct in the security and economic arena.
CS: Biden has mentioned that that if he were elected, he would consider building a global coalition to stand up to China. Would Japan join it?
JT: Yes, in a general sense. It depends on what he means. Japan hopes that the US will take a lead in reestablishing the liberal world order in the region, which is probably missing in the last several years because the US is becoming so inward-looking. If the US takes a lead again to establish that liberal world order based on the rules and freedom of trade and investment, I would say Japan is all for that.
This interview is part of the GZERO project Global voices on the US election, which you can find in full here.