National Commentaries

“How Transformative were Biden's Summits in Seoul and Tokyo?”



US-Japan relations had been on the upswing under Abe, but various uncertainties lingered. Obama was considered too weak on China. Abe’s wooing of Putin and early antagonizing of Park Geun-hye did not win favor in Washington. Trump was a wildcard, who could not be trusted to prioritize alliances and the full range of multilateralism that Abe was pursuing in Southeast and South Asia. As Biden took office, the legacy of suspicion toward Democrats lingered, but in 2021 Biden did a lot to overcome such doubts, as Fumio Kishida forged close relations. 

Biden’s visit to East Asia drew the most comprehensive applause in Japan. There was no powerful opposition raising the alarm about a negative reaction from the likes of North Korea and China. Kishida had prepared for months unlike Yoon, bolstering sanctions against Russia and embracing the regional framework Biden rolled out. He drew strong links between Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific, remarking, "unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force, like in Ukraine, should never be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific."  Given longstanding worries about US weakness in the Indo-Pacific, Biden’s firm comment on Taiwan and other initiatives posed little problem for Japan’s elite.

Already in January 2022 Biden and Kishida had formed an economic policy consultative committee. Kishida was taking economic security seriously, while planning to raise defense spending substantially. This was well received by conservatives in Japan, and the progressive side is mostly marginalized, unlike in South Korea. They have failed to give a clear response to how Japan can navigate various threats, which it also acknowledges. The idealism seen in South Korea is little visible.

Although Japanese remain suspicious about South Korea’s change of course, they welcomed Biden’s efforts there. Japanese fear that Yoon will be short-lived or unable to have a big impact, as was true of Park. For Seoul to join the Quad or CPTPP, a sense of optimism is needed in Tokyo. That has yet to gain momentum, although diplomacy is under way. Aligned to build on the 2015 agreement, Tokyo and Seoul must first clear away the detritus of five years. Japan lacks confidence that a resolution will happen after being burned, and it insists that Seoul clear away timebombs, disposing of court cases. The 2019 Japanese export controls and South Korean responses are proving hard to undo.

Biden’s visits to Seoul and Tokyo prompted more discussion of what steps can be taken soon. Security trilateralism over North Korea is high on the list. Galvanizing the private sector through supply chain arrangements is suggested. Another idea is to take advantage of the fascination with K-pop and Korean culture in Japan. After all, in 1998 there were hopes that Korean openings to Japanese culture would be a gamechanger, and early in the 2000s Korean dramas won the hearts of Japanese women. Young people are positively inclined to cultural imports from the other side. Potential for a bottom-up reset is seen by observers, but there is no institutional basis for moving forward.

Japan is growing more comfortable bringing values to the forefront. It considers itself the originator of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept, and happily played host to the Quad summit. This shifts attention away from narrow, nationalist thinking. Trust in the US is a driving force.

Questions endure over how Tokyo viewed Seoul in the context of IPEF, the Ukraine War, and the Indo-Pacific region. Ironic comfort was taken in the longstanding thinking that Seoul’s deviation was not just in its bilateral relationship with Tokyo, but in its entire outlook on foreign policy: whether to North Korea, China, or the Indo-Pacific. Even if US officials demurred when such accusations were raised, they were a mainstay of accusation against the Park and Moon administrations. The combination of Seoul’s response to the Ukraine war, the election of Yoon, and the Biden-Yoon summit made such views less tenable.

Recognition of the new opportunity with Seoul in mid-2022 was slow to sink in. It was convenient to repeat that the “ball is still in Seoul’s court,” as if the context had changed abruptly. This put the burden on the Biden team to keep making the case to the Kishida cabinet. Rather than tackle the difficult challenge of bilateral distrust, it appeared to realize that progress would be easier to concentrate on forging habits of cooperation in multilateral settings, especially trilateral meetings. 

A major transformation under way in Japan, advanced by Abe even if he was also its principal obstructer, was the embrace of universalism in values over parochial Japanese nationalism. As often as “FOIP” was mentioned, it served as a symbol of the broader worldview. On issues in Northeast Asia, change proved harder—South Korea, North Korea, and Russia evoked national identity themes distinct from the shared values sought by the Biden administration. The Ukraine war opened the door for reconsideration of Russia, the loss of hope in diplomacy with North Korean limited its national identity significance, and hope for rethinking relations with South Korea was slowly growing. With Kishida’s quick grasp of the narrative for facing Russian aggression, the new focus on global economic security held promise for Tokyo.

Japanese were coming to link five security threats in the vicinity. The threat of a Taiwan contingency loomed large, but there were also threats of Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, aggression against the Senkakus, North Korean nuclear advance, and a long-feared alliance between China and Russia. The Biden summit pointed to interlinked dangers and newly shared preparation through economic security. Secure supply chains and technological protection required a joint response, and Tokyo took pride in being first among US Asian allies.

Critical to Biden’s success in appeals to Tokyo as well as Seoul in 2022 was awareness in the region that China is intensifying its threats. Angry over new Japanese rhetoric about Taiwan and its response to the Ukraine war, Chinese keep using the phrase “playing with fire” and warn of severe consequences over NATO expansion in the Pacific. They resurrect charges of “Japanese militarism.” Attacking the Quad, AUKUS, the US-Japan-South Korea triangle, and other multilateral arrangements as steps to contain China, they regard the situation in Ukraine much as that in North Korea as a pretext for Japan to become more assertive, thus destabilizing the region. Kishida’s announcement of a substantial increase in defense spending at the Biden summit is taken as a sign of militarism in the critical 50th anniversary year of the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations. Such extreme views only intensify Japanese support for the agenda Biden is proposing.

The combination of China’s “wolf warrior” tone, Biden’s sustained and determined strategic outreach, and the Ukraine war have transformed the Japan-US alliance. Japanese largely approve, but various tests lie ahead. How closely will Japan align itself with NATO in the coming days? Will Japan show leadership in building a new relationship with South Korea? What new steps in Japan-US relations are anticipated? The new era is only beginning, but the May summits were welcomed in Tokyo with high expectations for what lies ahead.

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