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No gimmicks needed: The Biden doctrine and US-Japan relations

No gimmicks needed: The Biden doctrine and US-Japan relations
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Koji Tomita, Japan’s new ambassador to the U.S., knows something of leaders and nations in crisis. He has written biographies of British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher; he was Japan’s top envoy to two other global players, Israel and South Korea. And he has spent a quarter of his career working on U.S.-Japan relations during a challenging time for America. 

His job now is to assure Americans and President Biden that the U.S.-Japan alliance remains “unshakeable,” and that Japan has robust confidence in America’s global power and leadership. He wrote as much in a recent column in The Hill marking the tenth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, after which U.S. aid helped Japan recover. 

During a recent interview with Amb. Tomita, I wanted to know whether President TrumpDonald TrumpGaetz was denied meeting with Trump: CNN Federal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Police in California city declare unlawful assembly amid 'white lives matter' protest MORE had impacted U.S.-Japan relations and what Japan thinks of China’s recent actions. Both of our countries have new leaders today; Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, succeeded the long-serving, dynamic Shinzo Abe in September. 

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“I don’t think we need any gimmicks,” said Amb. Tomita, when asked how Prime Minister Suga would create the public trappings of a close relationship with President Biden. In the past, Japanese prime ministers and U.S. presidents have gone to ball games or told each other to use first names, as in the “Ron-Yasu” relationship between President Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Prime Minister Abe, knowing President Trump’s love of golf, gave him a Honma Beres S-05 driver at their first meeting and, a year later, signed a golf cap: “Donald & Shinzo, Make alliance even greater!” 

One of history’s enduring questions is whether individual leaders matter — in other words, can a President Biden or an Amb. Tomita rise beyond national interests, economic realities and other mammoth structural elements of a political order? I asked President Biden, when he was vice president, to define a “Biden Doctrine” in foreign policy. I knew, as we sat in the then-VP’s West Wing office, that Biden could very well become president and, at the time, the D.C. political class was reading “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic’s cover story on President Obama

Biden replied that “it all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal … a logical extension of personal relationships, with a lot less information to act on.” Then he drew on his famous family closet of aphorisms and said, “My dad used to say to me, ‘Champ, if everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you.’ So the hardest thing to do, I’ve found in 44 years, is to prioritize what really are the most consequential threats and concerns, and allocate resources relative to the nature of the threat.” To move U.S. foreign policy interests forward, Biden said, he had to know the needs and interests of a leader like Turkey’s Erdogan, China’s Xi or Russia’s Putin, and that it took personal connection to know where leaders could be pushed and where they couldn’t. 

I asked Amb. Tomita if he has his own diplomatic drivers, a “Tomita Doctrine.” He said he aligned “pretty much with President Biden’s credo … after doing this business for 40 years, my conclusion is diplomacy comes down to human relations. … And also, in a broader sense, the relationship between the countries depends on people-to-people exchanges, mutual understanding, mutual respect.”

When pondering whether leaders matter, it’s hard to avoid the vast differences in style, posture and policy between the Trump and Biden administrations. Was Japan’s trust in the U.S.-Japan alliance diminished by Trump’s “America First” policies, his public embrace of North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOn North Korea, Biden should borrow from Trump's Singapore declaration North Korea drops out of Tokyo Olympics Biden should look to 'Ostpolitik' to negotiate with autocrats MORE, his sanctioning of Japanese industry or questioning why America is engaged at all in the Pacific? Tomita insisted our relations are deeply, structurally sound and, “despite the change of administrations, be they Democrat or Republican, there has been a fundamental continuity in the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

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What holds U.S.-Japan relations together — beyond a gargantuan economic and trade relationship, and the bonds forged in post-World War II decades of rebuilding Japan and cooperating on a range of global issues — is China and the threat it poses to Japanese and American interests. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken to return to Brussels to discuss Russia, Ukraine tensions Blinken warns it would be a 'serious mistake' for Taiwan's status to be changed 'by force' Blinken: China 'didn't do what it needed to do' in early stages of pandemic MORE has said China represents “America’s biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” So, where is China on Japan’s strategic dashboard of concerns? “China is always a very big presence … the second largest economy with a population of 1.4 billion people,” Tomita said, and “it is in everyone’s interest to have stable relations with China.” But, he continued, “we have to be honest with our Chinese friends [about] certain aspects of their behavior — trade practices, human rights situation with Uyghurs and Hong Kong — and, from a Japanese perspective, it is particularly troubling to see the pattern of their maritime behavior which, in our eyes, amounts to unilateral attempts to change the status quo.”  

Biden national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanUS mulling cash payments to help curb migration Border czar Roberta Jacobson to step down from post Biden loves the Georgia boycott — So why won't he boycott the Beijing Olympic games? MORE and Secretary of State Blinken took some of that conversation — about cyber espionage, human rights violations, predatory trade behavior, aggressiveness in the South China Sea and around the Senkaku Islands — to their Chinese counterparts during a recent meeting in Alaska. Their testy exchange followed the first "Quad" meeting between leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia and India, highlighting the importance of a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” Biden, Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi co-wrote an opinion piece afterward, addressing collective global challenges like the pandemic, climate change, regional security and self-determination, without mentioning China. But everyone knows their virtual meeting was driven by shared concerns about China.

Tomita emphasized repeatedly during our conversation that the Biden administration “is very focused on the Indo-Pacific region, for a number of reasons. And Prime Minister Suga is incredibly committed to the task of strengthening further the Japan-U.S. alliance. And also working together with the U.S. for the free and open Indo-Pacific region.” For several reasons, yes, but mostly China.

Our conversation touched on the coming Olympic Games, for which he hopes Japan “can welcome a national audience” — meaning no international visitors. I asked about spats with South Korea regarding lingering resentments over labor and “comfort women” during World War II and Korean courts’ attempts to redefine legal settlements of those issues; Tomita said South Korea must take “firm action to prevent these issues from damaging our overall relations.” 

Tomita hopes the U.S. will return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which Trump pulled out of after the U.S. had led its negotiations. We also discussed Japan’s support payments for U.S. military forces stationed there, and U.S. demands that Japan shoulder more of the bill — a controversial topic in Japan.

But to return to a “Biden Doctrine,” Tomita reflected on then-Vice President Biden visiting areas hit by Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami: “(He) shook hands with the people there — and he hugged them. And he consoled all those people, and he also gave them hope. It was a really moving occasion, and I had great, great admiration for what he did on that day.”

Biden’s doctrine, and perhaps Tomita’s own version of it, considers the possibilities that leadership can accomplish even as political tectonics drive national behaviors. But sometimes leadership is knowing when to console, to laugh or cry, to connect. Biden’s doctrine may not fit a neatly crafted typology, but Tomita’s assessment of Biden’s humanity that day in 2011, hugging and consoling Japanese who had lost everything, may matter far more. 

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill. CLICK HERE to see the full transcript.