US will need Japan more as tensions with China rise, says ex-Japanese envoy

Mr Suga must tread a fine line with Japan's only formal military ally, the US, and its biggest trade partner, China. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Friction between the United States and China means Washington will need Japan more than before, regardless of who wins the presidential election, according to a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

"US relations with Japan and East Asian policies are likely to become relatively more important" as China becomes more powerful, former diplomat Kunihiko Miyake said in an interview on Thursday (Nov 5), while the US election result remained unclear.

Friction between China and the US would not dissipate under a new president, because both Democrats and Republicans are in agreement that China is the main strategic rival for the US, Mr Miyake added.

Mr Suga must tread a fine line with Japan's only formal military ally, the US, and its biggest trade partner, China.

Democrat Joe Biden, a past proponent of engagement with Beijing, has adopted a more critical tone during the campaign and pledged to enlist allies to a coordinated effort to check China's rise.

Republican Donald Trump has been more assertive with China than any US president in decades, slapping tariffs on goods and moving to restrict its access to key technologies.

Domestic opposition would make it difficult for Mr Biden to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership abandoned by Mr Trump, Mr Miyake said, emphasising that his views did not represent those of the Japanese government.

While a Biden administration would be unlikely to push for the four-fold increase in host-nation support for US troops in Japan that Mr Trump sought, it might nonetheless press Tokyo to pay more.

Although some in Mr Suga's ruling Liberal Democratic Party have urged a tougher line on China, his government has avoided any actions that might throw relations off track. China may try to improve ties with Japan as its feud with the US drags on, Mr Miyake said.

Unlike his long-serving predecessor, Mr Shinzo Abe, who spent hours on the golf course with Mr Trump, Mr Suga has scant experience with diplomacy.

Mr Miyake said that may mean officials at the Foreign Ministry and the US State Department gain more importance as the channel for communications.

Mr Suga is thinking of visiting the US in January, the Mainichi newspaper reported, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi may make a trip to Japan as soon as this month, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.

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