Some in Japan suspect a Biden administration will take a softer tack on China. Image: Agencies

Assuming Joseph Biden is inaugurated as the US President on January 20 some Japanese will be happy and some will be unhappy. Happiest of all over the prospects of a President Biden will be the Suga administration and a large part of Japan’s bureaucracy.

Why so? Once Biden is in the White House the pressure is off Japan. With President Donald Trump, the Japanese government never quite knew what Trump would demand of them. 

However, a President Biden is easier to figure out. He will demand nothing of the Japanese. So the Suga administration and the government of Japan will need to do nothing more than they feel like doing.

And Tokyo can revert to its preferred, time-tested approach to dealing with the Americans:  that is, grimace, do a little teeth sucking, and declare “too difficult” whatever it is the Americans are asking for. And if it costs money, just mention Japan’s “severe fiscal condition.” That always worked in the past – until Trump came along – and it should work with the new American administration.

Biden’s people might complain now and then, but that’s all. They will not apply any serious pressure on Japan. They aren’t that kind of people – like that “transactionalist” Donald Trump who didn’t understand diplomacy, or so his enemies said.

Indeed, as the first order of business from the Biden team Tokyo might expect an apology for Mr Trump having “ruined” the US-Japan alliance by making the Japanese uncomfortable. 

The Japanese government never quite knew what to make of Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

And they likely will apologize for Trump having asked for an increase in host nation support money. Tokyo can safely ask for a reduction if it feels like it.  So at least for a while Japan can revert to the pre-Trump status quo – doing only what it wants – while depending on the Americans to backstop Japan’s security.

But only for a while? Yes, only for a while. That is maybe three to six months. And the smart Japanese understand this and are none too pleased that Joseph Biden is president-elect.

What’s the problem? In five words: the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese are hell-bent on driving the United States out of Asia and dominating the region. They’ve built up their military to do that and even now, in certain circumstances, the People’s Liberation Army could give the Americans a bloody nose. 

And if the fight is in the South China Sea or near the Chinese coast it’s a bloody nose and two black eyes.

So expect China to call America’s bluff within maybe six months of Biden taking office. What might that look like? That is anybody’s guess, but one plausible scenario is the PRC seizing some of Taiwan’s territory – starting with one of Taiwan’s hard-to-defend offshore islands. As an initial move, Beijing might declare an exclusionary zone around the islands and force the Taiwanese to withdraw.

This would be enough of a move to terrorize the Taiwanese, but not necessarily enough to make the Americans go to war. Instead, Washington just might be willing to live with the humiliation and damaged credibility with regional and global partners – as the alternative to risking nuclear war.

The US hesitating or declining to protect Taiwan ought to frighten Tokyo as much as Taipei. It is a truism that Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense. Just consider the PRC sitting adjacent to the South China Sea sea-lanes through which much of Japan’s energy and trade flows.

And the East China Sea and Japanese territory are on Beijing’s menu too. Chinese sources have been saying for a few years now that they can ‘”assert administrative control” over the Senkaku Islands anytime they want. And they have been keen to teach the Japanese a lesson.

A J-15 fighter jet of the PLA Navy prepares to land on China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning during a naval exercise in the western Pacific. Photo: AFP

So why not flood the area around the Senkakus with a huge number of Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships while the PLA Navy lurks over the horizon? And then land a few “fishermen” or “scientists” on the Senkakus – and dare the Japanese to do something about it.

What will a Biden administration do when Beijing tests it – either directly or by going after one of America’s partners?  Nobody knows for sure, but both America’s friends and enemies have their doubts. And that’s part of the problem. A Trump administration would almost certainly have responded forcefully – and Beijing knew this.

Biden’s foreign policy team is experienced – many of them veterans from the Obama and Clinton administrations and others with long experience on Capitol Hill. But the experience largely consisted of giving the PRC what it wanted. It is possible they have learned from past failures, but old habits are often hard to break. And the Biden administration foreign policy team – most of it familiar to the Chinese – presumably does not frighten Beijing.

Moreover, domestic priorities will divert attention from foreign affairs, and the US defense budget will also be under pressure from social spending advocates – and especially the far-left wing of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, China’s defense budget is nearly unlimited – and the PLA Navy builds four ships for every one ship the US Navy launches.

Adding to the Biden administration’s challenges, the American financial and business classes don’t want Washington to take a strict approach to China. Even Trump faced fierce opposition from the quarter. Expect Biden to be even less able to say no – even if he wants to.

But didn’t Japan get Biden’s promise to defend the Senkakus and Japan itself? Yes and no.  Tokyo must be aware – just as the Filipinos learned when the PRC seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012 – that a promise the US will do something is no guarantee it will do anything. 

And Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty does not in fact obligate the Americans to fight on Japan’s behalf – even if the government of Japan thinks it does. So the arrival of a less demanding Biden administration might at first seem like a relaxing change in Tokyo. But it will also put Japan into a difficult position.

And remember that alone Japan cannot defend itself from the PRC.  The PLA Navy has overtaken even the vaunted Maritime Self Defense Force. And the steady Chinese build up – more ships, more aircraft, and improved capabilities – continues while the Japanese Navy frets that it is unable to find an extra 500 sailors to man two new Aegis destroyers. 

In fact, there is talk of forcing 500 Ground Self Defense Force members to transfer to the MSDF. And the Air Self Defense Force is also feeling the strain of responding to frequent PLA intrusions.

Japan’s best option

What to do? Tokyo ought to take the initiative with the new Biden administration. Ask the Americans what they need from Japan for it to become a more useful ally. And then do it. The Japanese might want to have a doctor standing by in case the Americans collapse from the shock of Japan making such an offer.

High on the priority list will be making it easier for American forces to train in Japan, and also spending a lot more money on defense – with the focus on making service in the JSDF an attractive profession in order to build morale and solve longstanding recruitment shortfalls.

Japanese Special Defense Forces in a file photo. Image: AFP/EPA

And even better, Japan might propose a joint operational headquarters in Japan where US and Japanese forces jointly conduct the actual defense of Japan. Surprisingly, no such headquarters – and little joint capability between Japanese and US forces – exists even after 60 years of the US-Japan alliance.

Prime Minister Suga can expect opposition to this approach. The pro-China factions in the Liberal Democratic Party and Ministry of Foreign Affairs will resist, as will Keidanren, the association of Japanese businesses, which doesn’t want to upset business ties with the PRC.

But if the Japanese government’s plan is to do as little as possible, since the Americans aren’t demanding anything – if it just wants to leave things up to the Americans – that is dangerous. The Americans need help, as China is too powerful and militarily capable. 

Tokyo will need to urge (if not beg) the Americans to stand up to China. But if Japan shows that it will stand up and seriously improves its own capabilities – to include joint capabilities within the Self Defense Forces and with US forces – it will make a stronger case with the Biden administration.

Of course, there is something ironic about all of this. In the past, the Americans were always trying to drag the Japanese into building a more powerful military and doing more on the defense front. Now, however, it is Tokyo that has the incentive – and the necessity – to keep the Americans, and a wobbly Biden Administration, willing to take on the PRC.

Times certainly have changed. Also, I only mentioned defense and not economic ties. These are important – particularly US-Japan cooperation on regional infrastructure, providing alternatives to PRC markets and supply chains, and cooperating against Huawei and the like. Perhaps Tokyo can even coax America back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

In the end, though, while economic efforts may be important and are an essential adjunct to military activities, if you don’t get the military part right nothing else will matter.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies – from whose January quarterly report this article is republished with permission – and the Center for Security Policy.