As the race for the White House heats up, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has laid out a foreign policy that seeks to restore U.S. leadership on the global stage and reinvigorate ties with traditional allies including Japan.
If the former vice president with vast foreign policy experience wins the November election, a return to what can be seen as "normalcy" is widely expected, bringing relief to countries that have coped with Republican President Donald Trump's erratic decision-making, provocative rhetoric and transactional approach to alliances since he took office in 2017.
Yet the current administration's hard-line approach toward China would likely continue even under Biden, possibly leaving countries like Japan in an ongoing balancing act amid the growing U.S.-China rivalry, experts say.
"A stereotyped image in Japan is that the Republicans are tough on China and the Democrats are soft...But there has been a bipartisan consensus to a tough-on-China approach in terms of human rights, security and economic issues in recent years...and I don't expect a Biden administration to reverse course," said Yuki Tatsumi of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
If there would be any difference, a Biden administration's response would likely be more calibrated, such as refraining from taking provocative actions that could end up creating a situation China could take advantage of, and there would be more close communication with U.S. allies on various issues, she said.
"The Japanese government will probably find it easier to work with Mr. Biden," the expert on U.S. policies in East Asia said, adding that the last thing Tokyo would want is "surprises," such as an abrupt thaw in ties between Washington and Beijing or sudden developments in talks on the denuclearization of North Korea.
Andrew Oros, professor of political science at Washington College, said that a coordinated response between the United States and its allies is gaining importance, as he sees China taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to advance its interests, including its claims in the East and South China seas.
As countries around the world continue to grapple with virus outbreaks, Chinese coast guard ships had been spotted near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea for more than 100 straight days, in what Tokyo sees as part of Beijing's campaign to press its claim to the uninhabited islets.
In the South China Sea in April, a China coast guard ship allegedly rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracel Islands, claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Trump administration has taken an increasingly hawkish stance against Beijing after the president's re-election prospects, banking on a strong economy, were thrown into jeopardy due to the pandemic, which has hit the United States with the highest number of fatalities in the world.
But even if Washington currently seeks to join hands with other countries to counter China, it faces difficulty in doing so as tensions among U.S. allies have increased due to Trump's "America First" rhetoric, while many allies have shown unwillingness to comply with his demand to boost spending significantly to cover more of the costs of hosting U.S. troops, Oros suggested.
"If the Democrats win convincingly (in the November elections), with a President Biden leading the new government and possibly Democratic control of Congress as well, serious efforts to mend frayed ties with U.S. allies and partners and to rebuild global partnerships can be expected," he said.
On the other hand, if Trump is re-elected for a second four-year term, Oros warned that greater challenges to create a U.S.-led global coalition to counter China's nefarious actions lay ahead -- with a greater potential for China to continue to exploit fissures in U.S. partnerships and lack of U.S. engagement abroad to its advantage.
Meanwhile, as the U.S.-China confrontation extends over areas ranging from the economy to military, technology and ideology, Japan, which relies on the United States for its security needs but maintains close economic ties with China, could be caught between the two superpowers.
"In reality, Japan has to deal with China on a case-by-case basis, so it is not necessarily in the interest of Tokyo to see the United States pushing too much ahead with its hawkish stance," Tatsumi said.
Japanese high-tech companies may bear the brunt of the standoff between Washington and Beijing, possibly facing tough scrutiny from U.S. authorities over connections with Chinese companies in their supply chains.
The U.S.-China trade ties would also likely remain frayed for some time regardless of the outcome of the election, with no rollbacks expected in punitive tariffs imposed by the Trump administration amid their trade war, Oxford Economics said in a recent report.
"Biden's platform stresses multilateralism and a mindset of negotiation, but it still frames China as a 'trade abuser.' So while a Biden victory might make new tariffs less likely, U.S.-China trade relations may be set for a deep freeze, no matter who wins the election," said the economists of the global advisory firm headquartered in Britain.
On North Korea, it remains to be seen whether Biden would pursue a multilateral framework -- if not the long-dormant six-party talks involving countries like China and Japan -- to inject momentum into efforts to rid Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons, Tatsumi said.
Biden has said that Trump's "showmanship with North Korea has not constrained its growing nuclear arsenal," apparently referring to the lack of significant progress on denuclearization after the unprecedented summit diplomacy between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un starting in 2018.
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was ousted by Trump last September, has been warning that re-electing the 74-year-old could result in dire consequences for alliance relationships and other issues, airing the view in his recently published memoir and media interviews.
But Bolton has also said he is not enthusiastic about Biden, as he expects the 77-year-old's term in office will "essentially be another four years" of the Barack Obama administration. Biden served as Obama's vice president for eight years from 2009.
"And I think the United States suffered substantial harm internationally because of their policies across a wide variety of fronts," Bolton, a conservative Republican, told Fox News in late June, specifying China, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, and dealing with Russia among "a whole range of issues."
For example, critics say that the Obama administration's policy on China that sought deeper engagement to make it a responsible player in global affairs ended in failure.
"It's a kind of apples and oranges comparison. They both trouble me for very different reasons," Bolton said.