Charles McClean is the Toyota Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies. Previously, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations 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
2021 demonstrated the difficult politics that have attended the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, the Congressional certification of the presidential election became the focus of violent protest and an attempted insurrection to stop the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joseph Biden. In Japan, while less volatile, the post-Abe era revealed the fragile balance of power within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that threatened to unseat unpopular prime ministers. The year began with Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide but ended with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio as Suga’s public approval ratings plummeted in response to the government’s pandemic management and the troublesome Tokyo Olympics. Japan’s two elections, one for the leadership of the LDP and the other for the Lower House, revealed just how sticky conservative politics are today. Undoubtedly, the election within the party drew the most interest as four new candidates emerged to claim the mantle of leadership of Japan’s largest political party.
Kishida emerged victorious after a second round of voting, which privileged those in the Diet over the rank and file of the party, with a far more assertive stance on Japan’s strategic outlook. He then led his party to victory in the general election, overcoming an opposition coalition that continued to struggle to put forward a cohesive identity or policy agenda.
Diplomatically, Washington and Tokyo continued to focus on their Indo-Pacific cooperation. The two militaries have continued consultations on how to cope with China’s growing presence in and around Japan’s southwestern islands. A new prime minister offered opportunity to further define the scope of US-Japan cooperation, and a new Biden-Kishida agenda is in the works. COVID-19 again intervened to prevent in-person meetings, but a virtual US-Japan 2+2 meeting allowed for continued alliance problem-solving.
By the end of spring, the US-Japan relationship was centerstage in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy. From the first Quad (virtual) Summit to the visit of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to Washington, DC, relations between Tokyo and Washington could not have been better. A full calendar of follow-up meetings for the fall suggested even further deepening of the partnership. And on Aug. 20, President Joe Biden announced that he intended to nominate Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and chief of staff for President Obama, as ambassador to Japan. Throughout the summer, the US and Japan continued to deepen and expand the global coalition for Indo-Pacific cooperation. The UK, France, and even Germany crafted their own Indo-Pacific visions, as did the EU. Maritime cooperation grew as more navies joined in regional exercises. Taiwan featured prominently in US-Japan diplomacy, and in May the G7 echoed US-Japan concerns about rising tensions across the Taiwan Straits. Japanese political leaders also spoke out on the need for Japan to be ready to support the US in case tensions rose to the level of military conflict.
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.
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.