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International relations

US and Japan to bring back bottom-up diplomacy under Biden

Obama-era Japan hands like Campbell offer ready-made connections

From left: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, U.S. secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken and President-elect Joe Biden. (Blinken and Biden photos by Reuters)

TOKYO -- Working-level talks will replace outgoing President Donald Trump's top-down approach in U.S. diplomacy with Japan, with the shift likely helped along by many familiar faces from President-elect Joe Biden's days as vice president in the Obama administration.

Biden's new team, featuring experts on the Asia-Pacific region and Japan in particular, signals a change from Trump's focus on personal relationships to a more consensus-based approach to setting bilateral policy.

Tokyo has welcomed the appointment of well-known Japan hand Kurt Campbell to the new post of Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council.

Campbell served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under then-President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013 and was a central figure in the administration's "rebalance" toward the region in response to China's rise.

The pick is "a sign that the new administration is focusing on East Asian security and regards China as a strategic competitor," said Toshihiro Nakayama, a Keio University professor whose fields include U.S. politics and foreign policy.

Campbell brings with him many personal connections in Tokyo. He built a relationship with Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba during Akiba's tenure as a political affairs minister at the Japanese Embassy in Washington.

Campbell is reportedly also good friends with Koji Tomita, who will be tapped soon as Japan's next ambassador to the U.S. Tomita was selected to be Tokyo's main point of contact with the new administration because of his relationships with senior officials on the Biden team returning from the Obama years.

Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, left, seen here in a 2013 photo, and the National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs Daniel Russel, right, arrive at South Korea's Incheon airport.   © Reuters

Top-level diplomacy was the norm with Trump, who enjoyed a warm relationship with Shinzo Abe, Suga's predecessor as prime minister. The pair met 14 times and spoke 37 times by phone in three and a half years.

"With Trump, there was a risk that he would upend any lower-level negotiations," said Mieko Nakabayashi, a political science professor at Waseda University. "Under the Biden administration, it will be easier to make decisions by reaching a consensus among working-level officials from the U.S. and Japan."

Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for secretary of state, has links to Japan as well. While serving as deputy secretary of state under Obama, he met here in 2015 with then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, now Japan's prime minister, to discuss the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma air base in Okinawa.

Blinken has visited Japan on numerous occasions for talks with senior diplomats. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi in December tweeted a photo of himself with Blinken from a 2014 meeting in Washington, while Kishi was a high-level Foreign Ministry official.

Wendy Sherman, Biden's nominee for the No. 2 post at the State Department, handled nuclear negotiations with Iran. Serving in the Clinton administration, she met with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Biden has yet to name his top State Department official for the Asia-Pacific, another position of particular interest to Japan. The post was held by Campbell and Daniel Russel, another Japan expert, under Obama.

John Kerry, a longtime friend of Biden, will serve as envoy for climate change on the National Security Council. As secretary of state under Obama, Kerry was a driving force behind the Paris climate accord.

Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi expressed interest in dialogue with Kerry. "I want us to share the understanding that Japan's efforts on climate change now are completely different from when he was secretary of state," Koizumi said.

Tokyo looks to arrange a first summit between Biden and Suga soon after this week's inauguration. Suga has expressed hope for a February meeting if possible. Considering top appointments in the State and Defense departments require Senate confirmation, Japan looks to start discussions to this end with new members of the National Security Council.

The time frame will depend on how the situation in the U.S. develops. The Senate is set to hold Trump's impeachment trial after Biden takes office, and the new administration is expected to prioritize domestic issues, including the rampant coronavirus outbreak and deep political divisions. It may take some time before top-level diplomacy gets underway, according to some observers.

The role of the millennial vote in Biden's victory means that "Japan will have no choice but to change how it engages with the U.S. over the medium to long term," said Kumi Yokoe, a professor in the Department of Global Innovation Studies at Toyo University.

"The millennial generation is more interested in individual happiness than national prestige," she said. "They dislike the idea of America unilaterally leading the international community -- they see it as patronizing."

"If the Japan-U.S. alliance begins and ends with the pursuit of national interests, it could lead to frustration in the U.S.," Yokoe said.

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