Japan Correspondent

TOKYO, Japan — U.S.  President Donald J. Trump has yet to concede defeat in the Nov. 3 election, but the leaders of the nation’s two most important Far East allies — Japan and South Korea — have been quick to congratulate his rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., on his victory.

And analysts say there were almost certainly deep sighs of relief in Tokyo and Seoul when the result became clear.


“In Japan, the sentiment is definitely that it is time for Trump to go,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. “Most people here think he is nothing but bad news and most South Koreans feel the same.”

For Tokyo and Seoul, the two largest issues by far are security and trade, but Trump’s erratic leadership and approach to issues affecting the Asia-Pacific were cause for broader concern in other capital cities. 

“A lot of Asia was rooting for Biden because they want the U.S. to once again play a proactive leadership role, which was something that Trump was unable to rise to,” Kingston said. “They want Biden to return the U.S. to the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement], to the Iran nuclear accords, to the Paris environmental agreements.”

The South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in has frequently found itself at loggerheads with Trump, who even before he took office had questioned the importance and financial worth to the U.S. of the security treaty with Seoul. 

Within months of entering the White House, Trump introduced a transactional approach to the security arrangement for a nation that borders deeply unpredictable and nuclear-armed North Korea and is also geographically close to China.

Defense Minister Mark Esper — before he was sacked on Nov. 9 by Twitter by the president —had been given the task of convincing Seoul to sharply increase the amount it pays for the 28,500 US troops stationed in the country.

Trump demanded that the figure rise to $5 billion a year from the $870 million that Seoul paid for calendar 2018. That deal ran out at the end of calendar 2019 and the two sides have since held several rounds of discussions, although it has been apparent that Seoul has been delaying the talks in the hope of dealing with a new administration in the early part of the new year.

Daniel Pinkston, professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, described the figure being demanded by Trump as “extortion” and said there was growing public anger at Washington’s demands. As a consequence, it would be impossible for a Korean government to capitulate to those demands.

“They would rather the American troops leave and then spend that money on developing nuclear weapons themselves,” he said. “There’s already a growing sense here that you can’t trust the Americans any more — people look at what happened with the Kurds and they know that Trump doesn’t care what happens in countries like Korea.

“South Korea has the nuclear technology, it has the experts and it has the money, so developing their own nuclear deterrent would be fairly straightforward,” Pinkston said. “But this is where it gets really dangerous. If the North sees the South building its own nuclear deterrent and the U.S. has gone, then Pyongyang would have a very good incentive to attack.”

President-elect Biden spoke by phone with Moon six days after the election and the two men agreed to cooperate closely to resolve the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with Biden reportedly describing South Korea as “the lynchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Gen. James McConville, U.S. Army chief of staff, salutes as he is greeted by a traditional Korean honor guard upon arriving at the office of the Republic of Korea Army chief of staff Nov. 17 in Seoul. McConville visited the peninsula to meet with U.S. soldiers and Korean military leaders.
Photo by Kenji Thuloweit/ U.S. Army

Biden spoke the same day with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and reiterated effectively an identical message, adding a more specific commitment that U.S. security guarantees cover the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. In recent years, Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and maintains a virtually constant Coast Guard presence within Japan’s territorial waters and the surrounding contiguous zone in an effort to demonstrate that Japan cannot maintain control over the region.

In a statement, Biden’s transition team said he “underscored his deep commitment to the defense of Japan and U.S. commitments under Article 5.” That clause in the 1960 Japan-U.S. security treaty obliges Washington to respond to an attack on territory under Japanese jurisdiction.

One issue that Biden is expected to stay on track with is the closure of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa and the relocation of thousands of military personnel and their dependents to an existing base that is undergoing expansion in the north-east of the prefecture, with more troops being shifted to Guam, South Korea and northern Australia.

Successive Japanese governments have stated that work will go ahead at Camp Schwab, despite repeated delays to the work. 

With questions over the last four years about the commitment of the U.S. to the region, Japan has pushed ahead with the forging of a number of regional alliances with nations that are just as concerned at Beijing’s rapid militarization and aggressively expansionist policies.

Those policies have been witnessed in the South China Sea, but also in the firmer grip that has been taken on Hong Kong, in land-grabs on the borders of both India and Nepal and the ratcheting up of tensions with Taiwan, which China still sees as a renegade province that should be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Japan has forged closer security ties with Australia and India, as well as a number of states in south-east Asia, such as Vietnam and Indonesia.

Tokyo will, nevertheless, be very keen to see a Biden administration playing a far more coherent and visible role in the region, both militarily and economically.

While Trump opted out of the TPP immediately after entering office, Japan was swift to assume leadership of the project and push ahead with what has evolved into the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Tokyo hopes that as well as reducing tariffs and taxes on imports and exports to make the trading block more powerful, it might also help to cement security arrangements and better counter China. mbj