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International relations

Suga watches US election with eye toward first official trip

Prime minister seeks early visit to showcase strong alliance

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga looks to get a quick start on building a relationship with the winner of the U.S. presidential election.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The results of the U.S. presidential election Tuesday will shape the diplomatic calendar for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose first official visit there could come by year-end or next year depending on who wins.

If President Donald Trump is reelected, the U.S. could host a Group of Seven summit before the end of the year, giving Suga an opportunity for a one-on-one meeting with the president around that time.

But if former Vice President Joe Biden wins, he will likely honor the diplomatic protocol of not holding unofficial meetings before taking office, meaning Suga will have to wait until after Biden formally takes office on Jan. 20. 

Building a relationship with the next leader of Japan's sole ally is at the top of the foreign policy agenda for Suga, who just took office in September. An early visit would not only signal that Japan is a priority for the next administration, but also help set the tone for the relationship for the next four years.

After Trump's victory in the November 2016 election, Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe paid him an unusual pre-inauguration visit that month at Trump Tower in New York, marking the start of a noted bromance.

At a summit in the U.S. the following February, Abe and Trump issued a joint statement stipulating that the U.S.-Japan security treaty covers the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan and claimed by China as the Diaoyu. Abe's warm relationship with Trump also gave the Japanese leader a boost in talks with countries such as North Korea and Russia.

Though Suga also hopes to get an early start on building a relationship with the next administration, the situation in the U.S. could make the planning difficult. The results of the presidential election may not be clear for some time after Election Day, and the coronavirus outbreak flaring up there presents an obstacle to face-to-face diplomacy.

Japanese prime ministers typically move quickly to send congratulatory calls to election winners, but in this case, Suga will need to be cautious about the timing.

Should Biden win, the State Department is expected to take back its traditional leading role in U.S. diplomacy, which likely means the administration will return avoid unofficial meetings with other leaders before the president takes office.

And given Biden's deep concern about the coronavirus pandemic, Tokyo worries that prospects for an in-person meeting may be dim if the outbreak has not been brought under control there.

In the past, Japanese prime ministers have generally visited new U.S. presidents within a few months of inauguration, usually by Japan's Golden Week break in early May. The order of meetings with world leaders reflects the new administration's priorities, and an early visit underscores the strength of the alliance between Washington and Tokyo.

The February 2017 summit with Abe was Trump's second official meeting with another world leader, after only then-U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. Taro Aso was the first leader to meet with Barack Obama after the latter took office in 2009. The pattern held with earlier leaders as well, with Yoshiro Mori meeting George W. Bush in mid-March 2001 and Kiichi Miyazawa with Bill Clinton in April 1993.

Japan is generally first in line among Asian nations, with the exception of 2001, when Bush met with then-South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung nearly two weeks before Mori.

But timing is not the only factor to consider. Suga undoubtedly recalls Obama's post-reelection summit with Abe in February 2013. The two sides pinned down a date for the talks, but clashed over the small amount of time allotted. 

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