5 Priorities for the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2021

The U.S. and Japanese flags fly on a lamp post in Washington, D.C., the day before the White House hosts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a visit, April 2015.

With 2021 fast approaching, the U.S.-Japan alliance remains a key pillar of America’s strategy in Asia. But the alliance faces a number of challenges, including the damaging legacy of the Trump administration. Although former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal relationship with President Donald Trump may have spared Japan from the worst of Trump’s attacks, Japan—and the alliance—was not unscathed. When Trump started a reckless trade war with China, he refused to exempt Japan from U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, casting doubt on the United States as a reliable partner and causing millions of dollars in economic damage. Trump also reportedly threatened to withdraw U.S. military forces from Japan unless it agreed to his demands for an increase of $8 billion—more than four times the current amount—for expenses to host American military forces in Japan. Furthermore, Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. leadership from international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal unnerved Japanese leaders who view a robust U.S. role in Asia and around the world as a bulwark against threats from China. Today, only 25 percent of the Japanese public has confidence in President Trump, compared with 78 percent in President Barack Obama’s final year in office.

Trump’s policies undermined the alliance at exactly the wrong time. China’s destabilizing behavior in Asia, North Korea’s growing stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, and the COVID-19 pandemic are just a few of the challenges that underscore the need for a robust U.S.-Japan alliance. As 2021 approaches with new leadership in both countries—U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga—below are five priorities that can help make the U.S.-Japan alliance as effective as possible in advancing shared interests in 2021 and beyond.

Global health and pandemic preparedness and response

As the global number of coronavirus cases continues to skyrocket and now exceeds 50 million, the United States and Japan should work together to bolster global health and the pandemic response. The United States must first return to the World Health Organization (WHO) and, with Japan, work to strengthen the organization. The two allies then should find ways to work together with other partners—including South Korea and Taiwan—to build public health capacity, ensure vaccine distribution, provide assistance to developing countries, enhance pandemic preparedness, and share ways on how best to facilitate strong economic recoveries. Japan has already pledged support for the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator project to help countries access treatments and vaccines; the United States should join Japan in supporting this effort.

As major development donors, the two countries should also come up with a joint approach to development assistance to strengthen the global economic recovery. Relatedly, the United States and Japan, and potentially Europe, should early in 2021 move to coordinate in the boardrooms at international finance institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and regional development banks. In doing so, the countries should drive board direction to assure that institutional policies, resources, and program planning advance climate-centric, green recovery programs in middle-income and least developed countries. Japan and the United States can be leaders in this effort at the Asian Development Bank, in particular.

Climate change

More than ever, Asia is being devastated by stronger typhoons and climate-related disasters. According to new data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 54.4 million people were displaced by weather-related natural disasters across Southeast Asia in 2008–2018 alone. This devastating reality was only reinforced by the series of typhoons that occurred across the region this year. Of the 300 million people in the world currently living on land that is projected to be below water by 2050 due to average annual coastal flood levels, the top six nations—China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand—account for 237 million people, almost 80 percent, and are in Asia.

Climate change poses a uniquely devastating and direct existential threat to the region, and the United States and Japan must take bolder steps to address the risks it poses. After years of Trump gutting U.S. efforts to tackle climate change, the United States will have much work to do at home and globally, including rejoining the Paris Agreement and returning to help lead the international effort to combat climate change.

It will also be important for both the United States and Japan, two of the world’s three largest economies, to take bold steps. President-elect Biden has committed to implement the policies necessary to put the United States on its way to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—a pathway that aligns with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommendation to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius—to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Prime Minister Suga made that same important and challenging net-zero commitment soon after taking office. These transformations in their respective domestic economies will require sustained political commitment, investment, and technological innovation, but they inevitably will elevate both countries’ competitive advantage and counter the impacts of climate change.

Japan has an opportunity and self-interest in reenvisioning its traditional oil-, gas-, and nuclear-centered energy agenda at home and in developing countries. A first, consequential step would be for Japan to announce that it will terminate its policy of providing public financing for overseas coal-fired power projects. More broadly, the United States and Japan should scrap their long-standing fossil fuel-centered energy partnership and create a clean energy partnership. This partnership should be centered on a strategy to realign and leverage the countries’ foreign assistance, commercial advocacy, and trade finance tools to drive clean energy transformations, particularly in infrastructure-related initiatives in the fast-growth economies in South and Southeast Asia.

The China challenge

From its maritime behavior to its usage of economic coercion to its incarceration of Uighurs, the challenges China poses are grave.

While the United States and Japan have worked closely on addressing some of these challenges, Japan has also sought to distance itself from several of Trump’s China policies. While Trump was in office, for example, Prime Minister Abe sought to improve Japan-China relations, easing some of the historic tension between the two countries. In recent years, the two countries began reengaging in high-level dialogue and created a military hotline to prevent escalation in the East China Sea. Chinese President Xi Jinping was even scheduled for a state visit to Japan until the trip was postponed due to the pandemic. Although reduced tension between Japan and China is a positive development, it is worth noting that Trump’s systematic weakening of the U.S.-Japan alliance and American leadership in Asia has pushed even Japan—which has long advocated a tougher line against Beijing—to start hedging when it comes to China.

Trump’s erratic approach to China has confused the world on what America’s long-term strategy toward China is and has even unnerved allies such as Japan. In order to meaningfully cooperate on the myriad challenges that China poses, the United States must first clarify its China policy. The United States, of course, must consult with Japan when devising this approach, and the two allies can craft coordinated policies for the various aspects of the China challenge. This process—and its results—will inform a wide swath of potential cooperation and coordination across the alliance.

Strengthening multilateral institutions in Asia

A key part of addressing the challenges posed by China—as well as many other issues in Asia—will be robust regional institutions. The United States and Japan must work together to enhance regional bodies’ ability to address common problems, and they should use those bodies to push back against China’s concerning behavior while also encouraging China to utilize multilateral venues constructively.

At the heart of regional institutions is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Under Trump, however, the U.S.-ASEAN relationship has deteriorated. A U.S. ambassador to ASEAN was never confirmed, and Trump failed to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) for the third time in 2020; in 2019, most Southeast Asian leaders responded to Trump’s absence by snubbing the U.S.-ASEAN summit that took place (Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand were the only countries to attend the meeting with the United States). The administration also treated most Southeast Asian countries like pawns in a game against China and focused on narrow interests such as trade deficits rather than shared challenges.

Meanwhile, Japan has continued improving its relationships with ASEAN countries. According to a recent poll, 84 percent of ASEAN respondents viewed Japan as a reliable partner. In some ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, the United States only had a 42 percent favorability rating. Indonesia was one of the first countries that the newly elected Prime Minister Suga visited, and the two countries agreed to work together on a variety of security, economic, and military issues.

One of the key priorities for the United States and Japan in the next year should be to strengthen regional institutions, in particular the ASEAN-centered EAS. As concerns over China’s actions in Asia grow—and as the region faces threats such as climate change, COVID-19, and cybersecurity—only a robust multilateral institution can hope to bring Asian countries together to tackle them. The first step the United States must take is to recommit to having the president attend the annual EAS and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. And as two leading powers, the United States and Japan should work closely together and with others in developing a plan to use the 2021 EAS to revamp the summit and make it more effective, including by empowering ASEAN ambassadors and launching cooperation in tackling COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Working together on North Korea

To uphold peace on the Korean Peninsula, the United States, Japan, and South Korea must work together. This kind of coordination will require the new administration to repair some of the recent damage between the allies.

In addition to strained U.S. relations with South Korea and Japan under the Trump administration, ties between Japan and South Korea—historically rocky—hit a low in 2019 as Japan enacted trade regulations against South Korea for its court ruling on forced labor during the colonial era. In response, South Korea threatened to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.

The three countries cannot allow these disagreements to undermine a cohesive allied approach to North Korea. Early in 2021, the United States, South Korea, and Japan should hold a high-level trilateral meeting to focus on North Korea and hold regular trilateral consultations thereafter. Meanwhile, the allies should begin outlining a road map for diplomacy with North Korea. This road map should include an agreement on the types of concessions to and requests of North Korea; how to pace the process of negotiations; and the goals and key milestones for all parties involved. Creating a consensus on a road map for the way forward will relieve tensions, manage expectations, present a unified posture, and help increase the chances of success. Finally, the United States should work quietly with both Japan and South Korea to try to help reduce tensions between the two countries.

Conclusion

The beginning of 2021 will be an unprecedented period. The United States, Japan, and the rest of the world will continue to face a pandemic and economic crisis, not to mention threats such as the climate crisis and growing concerns over China. The U.S.-Japan alliance can play an important role in addressing some of the serious challenges the two countries face in Asia and beyond in 2021—and they will need to get to work quickly.

Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Haneul Lee is a research assistant for Asia Policy with the Center’s National Security and International Policy team.

The authors would like to thank the government of Japan, whose support in part made this work possible. The Center for American Progress is an independent and nonpartisan organization and retained full editorial discretion over the content of this publication.