Charles McClean is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. His research interests include comparative politics in advanced democracies with a focus on political institutions, elite behavior, and Japan. He is also interested in age and representation, the age orientation of social welfare programs, and how societies confront the challenges of aging populations. He earned his B.A. in International Relations and Japanese from Tufts University (summa cum laude), his M.A. from Harvard’s Regional Studies East Asia program, and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego. Prior to UCSD, McClean worked on Japanese politics and U.S.-Japan relations as a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Articles by Charles McClean
2020 brought a global pandemic, economic strain, and, in both the United States and Japan, leadership transitions. COVID-19 came in waves, smaller to be sure in Japan than in the United States, and each wave intensified public scrutiny of government. Neither Tokyo nor Washington held up well. Public opinion continued to swing against President Donald Trump, increasing his disapproval rating from 50% in January to 57% in December following the US presidential election. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also suffered a loss of confidence. His disapproval rating grew from 40% in January to 50% in July, cementing his decision to step down on Aug. 28, ostensibly for health reasons.
Several unexpected events during the summer of 2020 confounded US-Japan ties. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to challenge governments in Tokyo and Washington, as the number of infected grew. The scale of the pandemic’s impact was far greater in the United States, with new cases climbing in southern and western states. Japan’s metropolitan centers faced an uptick in cases, but so too did less populated regions. The mortality rate of the United States hovered at 3%, a far more worrisome indicator that the pandemic was far from contained. In contrast, Japan continued to have a relatively low mortality rate of 1.9%.
It took time for Tokyo and Washington to understand the scope of the COVID-19 crisis, as the virus continues to spread in both Japan and the United States. The routine that would normally define US-Japan relations has been set aside, but it is too early to draw inferences about what this pandemic might mean for the relationship, for Asia, or indeed for the world. At the very least, the disease confounded plans in the United States and Japan for 2020. COVID-19 upended the carefully developed agenda for post-Abe leadership transitions in Japan and threw President Trump, already campaigning for re-election in the November presidential race, into a chaotic scramble to cope with the worst crisis in a century.
The highlight of 2019 was undoubtedly the US-Japan trade deal. It was two years in the making, but in September, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and US President Donald Trump concluded their much-anticipated trade agreement, ending a worrisome source of dissonance in the relationship. Two focal points characterized this first step in resolving trade frictions: market access in Japan for US agricultural goods and a new set of rules for digital trade. However, Abe got some pushback at home, and the Trump administration cautioned that this was just the first step to redressing the deficit.
Relations between the United States and Japan were active over the summer with two visits by President Donald Trump to Japan. The first was for Trump and First Lady Melania Trump to be the first state guests of the new Reiwa Era. The second was to participate in the G20 Summit in Osaka. Meanwhile, the two countries engaged in a series of trade talks that produced the broad outline of an agreement that is expected to be signed in late September. Throughout, domestic politics played an important role with upper house elections in Japan and Trump’s threat of tariffs influencing the pace of trade negotiations. In coming months, the US presidential election campaign will likely continue to shape alliance management.
The US and Japanese governments continued to work at maintaining a steadfast alliance, yet there were issues that could upend the relationship. After several months of anticipation, there was some progress on trade negotiations. While the US hoped to close the deal before President Trump visits Japan in late May, differences over the scope of the agreement and a number of difficult issues related to automobiles, agriculture, and currency rates remained. Meanwhile, domestic pressure over the Futenma relocation project returned to the news with a new referendum that strongly rejected the move. The introduction of the Reiwa era at the end of April served as a brief respite as the alliance partners sought to align interests following the “no deal” US-DPRK summit in Hanoi.
2018 came to a relatively quiet close for the US and Japan. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo secured a third term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a party election on Sept. 20 and is now set to be Japan’s longest serving prime minister. In contrast, President Donald Trump faced an electoral setback in the November midterms. With Democrats taking over the House of Representatives in January, pressure on the administration will grow. In December, Trump dismissed Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, and locked horns with the incoming Democratic Party leadership over funding for his border wall. Nevertheless, the US-Japan relationship seemed steady. In September, Prime Minister Abe agreed to open bilateral trade talks and in return sidestepped the Trump administration’s looming auto tariffs. Yet there are differences over their goals, suggesting that continued compromise will be needed. Abe worked hard in numerous summits to position Japan in Asia in the final months of 2018. He visited China, hosted India’s prime minister in Tokyo, and restarted the negotiations with Russia on the northern territories. Japan also announced its next long term defense plan and a five-year, $240 billion implementing procurement plan that includes a considerable investment in modern US weapon systems.
Relations between Tokyo and Washington grew more complex over the summer. The decision by President Donald Trump to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marked a new phase of alliance coordination on the strategic challenge posed by Pyongyang. Trade relations also continued to create an undercurrent of discord. No consensus emerged on a free-trade agreement and the sense that the Trump administration was preparing to impose tariffs not only on steel and aluminum but also on the auto industry added to trepidation over the economic relationship. By the end of the summer, there were signs that the US and Japan were beginning to synchronize their approaches to the Indo-Pacific region as an economic cooperation agenda seems to be emerging. Meanwhile, politics in both capitols this fall make predictions about policy coordination difficult. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo faces his party’s leadership election on Sept. 20, a contest he is likely to win but an opportunity for others in the party to push him on his priorities. In the US, midterm elections promise a referendum on the Trump administration and the increasing turmoil surrounding the White House.
2018 brought with it a swirling series of summits, including another visit by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to the United States to meet President Donald Trump. The year began with Japan and the United States toe-to-toe on their “maximum pressure” strategy toward North Korea. Four months later there was the announcement of a June 12 summit between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Tokyo and Washington have yet to come together on trade, and even at the Abe-Trump summit in mid-April, the differences were conspicuously on display. The US-Japan economic partnership remains a potential black hole for the alliance in the months ahead. But the action is in Northeast Asia for the moment, where everyone seems to be trying to meet with everyone. Nonetheless, Abe and Trump made clear in their summit their mutual goal has not changed: complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization by North Korea.
In the fall of 2017, the growing threat from North Korea garnered a lot of attention in the US and Japan. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō used that threat to win yet one more election. North Korea also dominated discussions during President Donald Trump’s visit in November, although a reckoning on trade hovered in the background. Japan also worried about other stops on Trump’s extended Asian itinerary, especially his stay in Beijing. The Trump administration’s focus on its America First agenda was a significant factor in shaping Japan’s foreign policy. Abe seemed up to the challenge as Japan actively pursued its interests globally to ensure support for North Korea sanctions and to build trade agreements that will further Japan’s economic and trade interests. The US-Japan alliance remains in good shape, although there are difficulties to manage.
The summer of 2017 was an uneasy one in both Tokyo and Washington. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo struggled as public approval dropped precipitously following scandals and a miserable performance for his party in the Tokyo metropolitan elections. In the US, President Donald Trump moved from conflict to conflict, resulting in a historically low approval rating for a new administration and deep fissures within the Republican Party. Alliance cooperation largely focused on the continuing tensions with North Korea. A long-awaited Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (2+2 Meeting) between the defense and foreign policy principals could not be scheduled until after Abe reshuffled his Cabinet in August. While the discussions proved cordial, there was little indication that a strategic look ahead was in the making. Troubles at home for both administrations seemed to forestall any effort at a comprehensive US-Japan discussion about the Asia-Pacific region.
The transition to the new Trump administration was far smoother for Japan than for other US allies. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to Trump Tower the week after the election in November undoubtedly helped smooth the way, and his visit in February proved to be a successful confirmation of Tokyo’s highest priorities for alliance cooperation. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both headed to Northeast Asia, reassuring Tokyo and Seoul of the administration’s commitment to its Asian allies. This early effort helped ensure continuity rather than disruption would be the theme for the US-Japan alliance for the next four years. North Korea, of course, helped that return to normalcy. Yet not all was settled in these early months. How the new administration was going to define its approach to trade remained ill-defined. The Japanese government, however, was not interested in a conversation that focused only on trade.
The US presidential election was the primary influence affecting US-Japan relations in the fall of 2016. Japan was brought into the spotlight during the campaign with Trump repeatedly criticizing Tokyo for unfair trade practices and free riding in the alliance. The outcome of the election left many Japanese worried about the future of the alliance. Prime Minister Abe quickly reached out to President-elect Trump, arranging a meeting with him in New York on Nov. 18. Beyond the attention given to the election, the LDP and Abe also sought to support the Obama administration by ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership and promoting maritime capacity building in Southeast Asia. President Obama and Prime Minister Abe met for the last time in Hawaii on Dec. 27. Uncertainty abounds on the economic and strategic fronts in the coming year, but the biggest unknown for the bilateral relationship will be the new US president and his approach to Asia.
President Obama and Prime Minister Abe traveled to Hiroshima, where Obama took the opportunity to speak of the devastating consequences of war in the nuclear era. The summer months that followed were full of politics, with an Upper House election in Japan in July and the Republican and Democratic Party conventions in the US kicking off the general election campaign for president. The Obama administration continued to work toward congressional passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the end of the year. With less political contention but growing skepticism over Washington’s ability to ratify the agreement, the Abe Cabinet decided to postpone Diet discussions on the topic until after its election. Regional relations continue to shape the US-Japan alliance agenda with Chinese maritime activity in the East China Sea and South China Sea and ongoing North Korean provocations garnering the most attention.
The US-Japan relationship was relatively steady in the early months of 2016 until the US presidential primaries began to stir things up. For the first time in decades, Japan became the focus of debate on the campaign trail when Donald Trump began to single out Japan on trade and on security cooperation. There was also a setback on the Futenma replacement facility when construction was halted following a compromise between the central government and Okinawa that calls for a court decision on how to proceed. Nevertheless, the two governments continued to refine alliance coordination in the face of North Korea’s nuclear test and missile launches and pursued maritime cooperation as Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea continued to roil regional waters. With major elections on the horizon, both countries are likely to be consumed by politics in the coming months.
Washington and Tokyo made significant progress on two new initiatives this fall – Japan’s implementation of legislation for the exercise of collective self-defense and the conclusion of negotiations with other participants in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). With Japanese Upper House elections in the summer and US presidential elections in the fall, trade, military strategy, and US-Japan security cooperation will be part of the political discourse in both countries. Along with the ratification process for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, two challenges for Washington and Tokyo that will continue into the new year are how to respond to Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea and how to deal with local opposition to Tokyo’s plans for building a new airfield to replace the Futenma facility on Okinawa.
In the wake of a highly successful April visit by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to Washington, the US-Japan relationship seemed poised for a celebration of success in revamping the alliance. Two focal points of alliance policymakers were the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But over the summer, both of these initiatives came under political scrutiny. Beyond alliance priorities, the US and Japan faced additional dilemmas in how to deal with a more assertive and sensitive China. Artificial island building by China in the South China Sea brought the US and Japan into closer dialogue over regional maritime cooperation. At the end of the summer, the much-anticipated commemorations of the end of World War II in Japan and China brought heightened sensitivity to the region.