Election 2020

Japan Worries About Four More Years of Trump—and About a Biden Presidency

Neither U.S. presidential option is great for Tokyo.

U.S. President Donald Trump is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
U.S. President Donald Trump is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he arrives to play golf at Mobara Country Club in Chiba, Japan on May 26, 2019. Kimimasa Mayama-Pool/Getty Images

TOKYO—For Japan, just about any outcome in a nail-biter U.S. presidential election brings its share of worries.

A victory for incumbent President Donald Trump carries the known risks—contentious negotiations about who should pay for the extensive U.S. military presence in Japan, the constant threat of tariffs on Japanese autos, and the broader concern of having a mercurial figure at the head of the U.S.-Japan alliance. (There is no illusion here over who is in charge of a relationship dubbed by a former U.S. ambassador as “the most important relationship in the world, bar none.”)

TOKYO—For Japan, just about any outcome in a nail-biter U.S. presidential election brings its share of worries.

A victory for incumbent President Donald Trump carries the known risks—contentious negotiations about who should pay for the extensive U.S. military presence in Japan, the constant threat of tariffs on Japanese autos, and the broader concern of having a mercurial figure at the head of the U.S.-Japan alliance. (There is no illusion here over who is in charge of a relationship dubbed by a former U.S. ambassador as “the most important relationship in the world, bar none.”)

A Joe Biden administration carries unknown risks. Who will be in charge of foreign policy? Will Japan be able to recreate the close personal ties between Trump and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (a favorite golf partner for the president)? Most importantly, will the United States go soft on China?

That’s not to say that Japan is itself willing to stand up to a rising China in public. On the record, officials talk about the strategic alliance with the United States but add that it would be unrealistic for Japan to decouple from its largest trading partner.

They are happy, however, to let Washington take the lead—and the heat. Such a position would give Japan the chance to take a somewhat harder line on the human rights, territorial, and security challenges posed by Beijing without getting in too much trouble. They believe that Trump will happily oblige in this area. There is also the practical issue that the conservative ruling party in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party, has traditionally worked better with Republican presidents. The relations between Abe and Barack Obama were noticeably cool.

At the same time, a new Trump administration could carry a very tangible cost. Negotiations on a base agreement for U.S. troops are due to start next year. Japan currently contributes around $1 billion annually. Trump, ever the negotiator, is said to be demanding an increase to $4 billion to $5 billion. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton puts the figure at $8 billion.

There is also the fatigue factor. The diplomats at the foreign ministry believe that they have successfully steered clear of any relationship crises with a prickly foreign leader, but they are not sure they can keep this up for another four years. In this, they are probably not alone.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

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