Suga congratulates Biden and Harris, analysts see more stable footing for Japan-US ties

Mr Suga was elected as Japan's prime minister in September.
Mr Suga was elected as Japan's prime minister in September.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - In an early morning tweet hours after the winner of the United States presidential election was confirmed, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga offered his congratulations to president-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris.

“I look forward to working with you to further strengthen the Japan-US alliance and ensure peace, freedom, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond,” Mr Suga said in both English and Japanese.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi added that he “looks forward to working closely with the new administration to further promote Japan-US relations and to overcome challenges the world faces”.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Hakubun Shimomura, noting Mr Biden’s pledges for the US to return to the Paris Agreement, told public broadcaster NHK that this was an area of priority that both nations can work together. 

Mr Suga had, in his debut policy speech last month, set a goal for Japan to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Japanese media cited government sources as saying that Mr Suga hopes to visit the US to meet the new president as soon as possible after he is sworn in on Jan 20. The Mainichi Shimbun suggested the trip could take place as soon as late January, depending on the Covid-19 situation.

Mr Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe broke with diplomatic protocol to meet Mr Donald Trump just nine days after he clinched the election in 2016, attempting to get a headstart on building a personal relationship even though US leaders usually hold off on diplomatic activities until they are inaugurated. A repeat this time round by Mr Suga is highly unlikely. 

Mr Biden’s victory was also cheered by the Japanese business community. 

Mr Hiroaki Nakanishi, who chairs powerful Japanese business lobby Keidanren, said he hopes the US will play a leading role in containing the global Covid-19 pandemic and achieve global economic recovery, as well as to rebuild the international order, under Mr Biden. 

Suntory chief executive officer Takeshi Niinami said in a statement that Mr Biden’s victory “promises to restore relations with international institutions and allies” and could lead to the US “regaining its presence as the world’s leader of liberal democracy”.

Experts, meanwhile, believe Mr Biden’s election puts the Japan-US alliance on a more stable, predictable footing even as both nations would have seen a leadership change within months.

“The importance of personal diplomacy cannot be overstated,” Dr Tosh Minohara, who chairs the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs think-tank, told The Straits Times. 

“Suga has no experience dealing with an arrogant American, and it would have been difficult to build ties with (outgoing president Donald) Trump on a personal level.”

However, he expects Mr Biden and Mr Suga to have mutual respect, and their policies to be more in tune with each other.

These include such issues as China’s expansionism, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, as well as cooperation at international institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation.

The US and Japan are due to also come to an agreement on host nation support by March 2021, when the current pact ends.

These talks are typically held once every five years, but the ongoing negotiations over the cost of hosting around 55,000 US troops in Japan had taken on a contentious tone due to Mr Trump’s pressure on Japan to shoulder more of the financial burden. 

But one area that Japan is not counting on is a quick return of the US to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement, which Mr Trump withdrew from in one of his first acts in office.

Although Mr Biden was vice-president to Mr Barack Obama when the deal was struck, Japanese experts pointed out that the Democratic Party has shifted left, and the liberals have generally been cool to the idea of free trade."

"Mr Biden's campaign had said he will focus on reviving US manufacturing and to place US-made goods first, which is more of an inward-looking position," Dr Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University said. "The fact that the image of free trade has worsened in the US, as the economy suffers due to the Covid-19, makes it very challenging for an immediate return to the TPP."  

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