Japan Times Analysis: Can a Biden-led U.S. return to form?

TOKYO, Jan 22 (Japan Times/ANN): With new U.S. President Joe Biden, Washington’s Asian allies have a friendlier and more engaged partner in the Oval Office after four tumultuous years of “America First” under Donald Trump that left alliances crippled and neglected.

But the former U.S. vice president returns to a changed landscape both in Asia and at home after four years out of the White House.

Biden took the oath of office in Washington on Wednesday, vowing in a speech to bridge a divide in the U.S. that has threatened not only the country itself, but the bedrock principles upon which other democracies also rest.

“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve. America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge, ” Biden said as he began his inaugural address.

“We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed, ” he said.

“The world is watching, watching all of us today, ” Biden added. “So here is my message to those beyond our borders: America’s been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it.”

Biden looked to reassure a world wary of capricious American policy on the global stage in the wake of Trump’s term in office, which variously saw the U.S. leader bolt from international agreements, put in place protectionist trade measures and heap pressure on allies to cough up more cash for the costs of hosting American troops.

“We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, ” Biden said.

“We’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security, ” he said.

“We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.”

Asked about Biden’s global priorities, press secretary Jen Psaki told a news conference later in the day that “his priority is rebuilding our partnerships and alliances and regaining America’s seat at the global table.”

The administration’s words signal a return to multilateralism and U.S. leadership, a shift that was welcomed by Tokyo, which hopes to work together to advance mutual values such as the rule of law through its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was quick to congratulate the new U.S. president and his vice president, Kamala Harris, tweeting in English and Japanese shortly after Biden took the oath of office.

“Congratulations to President @JoeBiden and Vice President @KamalaHarris on your inauguration. Japan and the United States are allies tied firmly by bonds and shared universal values, ” Suga wrote in English. “I look forward to working with you and your team to reinforce our alliance and to realize a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

Speaking to reporters later at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo, Suga said he also hopes to cooperate closely with Biden on global issues such as the pandemic and climate change.

The Japanese government also welcomed Biden’s reversal of Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord, with Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi calling Washington’s participation in the Paris agreement “vital” for its success.

Suga said a phone call with Biden is being arranged “for an appropriate time.”

He had said earlier that he hopes to visit the United States soon, possibly next month, for a meeting with Biden, but the increasingly precarious coronavirus situation in both Japan and the U.S. could delay those plans until at least April.

He will first have to contend with the coronavirus crisis, which has left more than 400,000 Americans dead — far more than any other country — and infected over 24 million. And he will have to do this amid a bitter divide in the country that led to the storming of the Capitol earlier this month by a pro-Trump mob seeking to block the transfer of power.

America’s handling of the pandemic and the riot in the seat of U.S. power have shocked democracies around the world, and left them wondering about the ability — and willingness — of the United States to confront challenges outside of its own borders.

In Asia, Biden will also be dealing with a region that has changed vastly since his time in the administration of Barack Obama. Under Trump, Sino-American ties have tumbled to a historic low point and North Korea has continued to refine a nuclear arsenal capable of striking the U.S., while high-level ties with Southeast Asia have crumbled amid a virtual absence from regional groupings.

Biden’s team has attempted to convey a renewed and fresh focus on the region, but the president has also tapped former Obama administration officials for key Cabinet posts, triggering concerns in some capitals that his administration’s approach may be out of step.

Tokyo, in particular, is worried that the new administration may take a softer line on China in exchange for cooperation on other issues such as climate change and the pandemic, moves that could marginalize Japan’s position in Asia and impinge on its strategic goals.

“There are concerns in the Japanese policy community about the Biden administration, especially regarding its Asia policy, ” said Aki Tonami, an associate professor of international relations and economics at the University of Tsukuba. “The concern seems to be mounting especially because posts at the State Department and the NSC (National Security Council) are filled with staff from the Obama administration, which appeared to misjudge China and Russia.”

Toshihiro Nakayama, a Keio University professor whose focus includes U.S. politics and foreign policy, also pointed to the “critical” importance of Southeast Asia, where he said there is “strong skepticism” about whether the U.S. will remain a resident power.

Gaining support from Southeast Asian nations and reassuring them of a U.S. commitment to the region is seen as indispensable to the Biden administration’s goal of forming a coalition of countries to confront Chinese malfeasance and assertiveness, observers say.

A dual-pronged U.S. economic and security strategy for these countries would overlap with Japan’s own FOIP strategy, which Suga has deployed with a strong focus on Southeast Asia, where he made his first overseas trip as prime minister last year.

But first, the administration must get its China policy right.

“If the Biden team fumbles this, it’s going to be a very bad start, ” Nakayama said, adding that there have been hopeful signs, including the appointment of Kurt Campbell — another former Obama official and key architect of the U.S. pivot to Asia — as the coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the NSC.

Key Biden Cabinet picks have also tried to ameliorate these fears during confirmation hearings.

“As we look at China, there is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge” to U.S. national interests, Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, said.

“There are rising adversarial aspects of the relationship; certainly, competitive ones, and still some cooperative ones, when it is in our mutual interests, ” he added.

Defense secretary nominee Lloyd Austin, meanwhile, characterized China as a “pacing threat, ” a reference to a competitor making significant progress toward challenging U.S. defense strategy. He said that China made huge strides in its military modernization push over the last two decades, while employing aggressive and at times coercive behavior against U.S. allies in the region.

Allies, however, are likely to take a “talk-is-cheap” view of the administration’s pledges, remaining skeptical until they see tangible results — especially after the deadly riot in Washington and Trump’s flirtation with authoritarianism.

“It’s going to be tough, ” said Keio’s Nakayama. “It will take some time for America to repair its image. In the meantime, Biden’s task should be to repair the domestic wounds and lay a foundation for bipartisan robust American internationalism.”

But Nakayama noted that while there would be “no returning to a pre-Trump status quo, ” apprehension in Asia of “China’s growing hegemonic ambitions is becoming stronger.”

“Countries in the region hope the U.S. can revive its forward-leaning posture, but realize that is a high bar, ” he said.

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