Charles McClean

Yale University
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Charles T. McClean is Japan Foundation Postdoctoral Associate in East Asian Studies at the Yale MacMillan Center. Previously he was the Toyota Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies and 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
Washington Welcomes Prime Minister Kishida

2024 began with a full agenda for the US and Japan. All eyes were on the January presidential election in Taiwan, and China’s reaction to it. The choice of William Lai Ching-te, who is currently vice president, cemented the hold of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on power, with a third term for the party. Lai has close ties with Japan and has made no bones about his expectation that Japan, as well as the US, will figure prominently in his hopes for Taiwan’s future. The invitation to former Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou to visit Beijing on April 10 made it clear that Beijing had a different preference than the people of Taiwan. The uptick in Chinese military pressure across the Strait as well as in the South China Sea also concerned the US and Japan. The People’s Liberation Army’s growing demonstration of pressure on Taiwan’s eastern islands continued in the months after Lai’s victory, as Taiwan prepared to inaugurate him as president on May 20. The US and Japan found common cause also in speaking out against China’s growing aggression against Philippine maritime forces at Second Thomas Shoal.

A Busy Diplomatic Calendar for Biden and Kishida

2023 is the year for the US and Japan to intensify their cooperation in multilateral venues. The first opportunity was the G7 meeting in Hiroshima in May, and the last will be the APEC meeting in San Francisco in November. In between, partners were hosting other important meetings: the NATO Summit in Lithuania and the G20 in India. Across these meetings, Russia’s war in Ukraine has stayed at the top of the agenda. The war has focused attention on the rules-based order, but global economic cooperation was not far behind. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio traveled to Africa and the Middle East to offer assistance for food insecurity and to stabilize energy markets, while President Joe Biden reached out to nations in the Indo-Pacific, including Pacific Island nations and Vietnam, to deepen strategic cooperation. China continues to loom large. The Biden administration sent three Cabinet members to Beijing for long sought consultations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally realized his planned trip on June 18-19. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen followed on July 6-9 to meet with her counterpart, Vice Premier He Lifeng.

The US and Japan Build Multilateral Momentum

2023 brings a renewed focus on the US-Japan partnership as a fulcrum of global and regional diplomacy. With an eye to the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in mid-May, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio began the year with visits to G7 counterparts in Europe and North America. Later in the spring, he toured Africa in an effort to gain understanding from countries of the Global South. The Joe Biden administration looks ahead to a lively economic agenda, as it hosts the APEC Summit in November on the heels of the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan laid out in detail the economic ambitions of the Biden national strategy on April 27, giving further clarity to how the administration’s foreign policy will meet the needs of the American middle class. Regional collaboration continues to expand. Both leaders will gather in Australia on May 24 as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hosts the third in-person meeting of the leaders of the Quad. Also noteworthy in this first quarter of 2023 is the progress in ties between Japan and South Korea.

Ramping Up Diplomacy and Defense Cooperation

In the wake of the death of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the fall brought unexpectedly turbulent politics for Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. In the United States, however, President Joe Biden welcomed the relatively positive outcome of the midterm elections, with Democrats retaining control over the Senate and losing less than the expected number of seats in the House. Diplomacy continued to be centered on various impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but both Biden and Kishida focused their attention on a series of Asian diplomatic gatherings to improve ties. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attendance at the G20 Meeting in Bali and APEC gathering in Bangkok proffered the opportunity finally for in-person bilateral meetings for both leaders. Finally, Japan’s long awaited strategic documents were unveiled in December. A new National Security Strategy (NSS) took a far more sober look at China’s growing influence and included ongoing concerns over North Korea as well as a growing awareness of Japan’s increasingly difficult relationship with Russia.

Accompanying the NSS is a 10-year defense plan, with a five-year build-up commitment, that gave evidence that Kishida and his ruling coalition were serious about their aim to spend 2% of Japan’s GDP on its security. The desire for greater lethality was also there, with the inclusion of conventional strike investment.

Abe’s Legacy and the Alliance Agenda

It was a busy summer for the United States and Japan. President Joe Biden visited Asia, stopping first in Seoul to meet new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and then spending two days in Tokyo for a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and a follow-on meeting with the two other leaders of the Quad, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese. Biden announced his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Tokyo with Kishida by his side. Economic security legislation in both Japan and the United States revealed the unfolding strategic calculations for the alliance. National efforts to enhance economic productivity and resilience included efforts to ensure reliable supply chains for Japanese and US manufacturers as well as the desire for greater cooperation among the advanced industrial economies to dominate the next generation of technological innovation. State investment in attracting semiconductor suppliers to Japan and the United States demonstrate the urgency with which both governments seek to diminish reliance on critical technology imports.

Despite all the diplomatic planning that accompanied these developments, the summer was not without surprises. In Japan, the sudden death of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, at the hand of a lone gunman, shocked a nation known for its relatively low rate of gun violence. Across the globe, leaders praised Abe’s statesmanship and his strategic vision—his ability to meet Japan’s moment of challenge as the rules-based order was under threat.

Only weeks later, the United States and China found themselves in a high-stakes military standoff over Taiwan. US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rescheduled her Asia tour after having to cancel it in April due to COVID-19. Her itinerary leaked, and her intention to visit Taiwan drew China’s ire. A top commentator for the Global Times tweeted that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) had the right to shoot down Pelosi’s plane if she did. And a highly charged demonstration of Chinese military power ensued. The PLA exercises conducted after her departure directly involved Japan as missiles landed in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The United States ensured that its military was close at hand to dissuade miscalculation.

Russian Invasion Accelerates Alliance Review

The US and Japan began the year with a 2+2 meeting, continuing their close coordination on alliance preparedness and regional coalition-building. COVID-19 affected the two allies’ diplomatic schedule, however, as the omicron variant spread quickly in Washington, DC. Once again, an in-person meeting between the secretaries of state and defense and their counterparts, ministers of foreign affairs and defense, had to be moved online. Moreover, resolving the management of COVID by US Forces Japan with Japan’s own protocols was on the agenda. But the US and Japanese governments met another challenge with alacrity: the conclusion of a new Host Nation Support agreement. With an emphasis on alliance resilience, this five-year provision of Japanese support for the US military in Japan handily sidestepped some of the political difficulties that have colored talks in the past.

Much is ahead for Japan this year in updating its strategic planning. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio began a strategic review late last year, and the National Security Council as well as the Ministry of Defense got to work on laying out the aims of a new National Security Strategy, 10-year defense plan, and an accompanying procurement plan. Shaped by the accelerating shift in the military balance in Japan’s vicinity and across the Indo-Pacific, this strategic review is expected to be momentous. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) also initiated its own study of Japan’s strategic needs and produced a draft that highlights doubling Japan’s defense spending to match NATO’s target of 2% of GDP.

But President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida have focused on Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine. Both allies have been in sync as the G7 mobilized to impose sanctions against Russia and aid to Ukraine. Framing this crisis as a violation of the postwar international order, Kishida firmly committed Japan to ongoing and comprehensive engagement with not only the US but also European nations. Moreover, Putin’s war against Ukraine has galvanized dialogue between US allies in NATO and in Asia, creating a deepening diplomatic opportunity for Japan to develop European support should a similar crisis erupt in the Indo-Pacific.

A New Prime Minister and a Growing Alliance Agenda

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.

Summer Takes an Unexpected Turn

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.

Suga and Biden Off to a Good Start

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.

Leadership Transitions in Tokyo and Washington

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.