[News analysis] New US president has phoned Japan’s Suga but has yet to call S. Korea’s Moon

Posted on : 2021-01-29 18:15 KST Modified on : 2021-01-29 18:15 KST
The significance of which leader Biden calls first
A Japanese news broadcast about a phone call between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
A Japanese news broadcast about a phone call between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga

A maxim often cited by diplomats is that “diplomacy is protocol, and protocol is sequence.” This means that states use protocol to indirectly convey to other sovereign states sentiments they can’t overtly express regarding foreign policy, a realm where countries’ differing interests sharply collide.

That’s also true of the US, the world’s superpower. The most important of all protocols is the summit between heads of government. Since diplomacy is protocol, and protocol is sequence, the first phone call a new US president makes to another head of state serves as an honest barometer of Washington’s foreign policy priorities.

Some formulas are maintained in the sequence of phone calls. The US president typically calls neighboring countries first, Israel and major European allies second, and major Asian allies third.

Since his inauguration on Jan. 20, US President Joe Biden has also strictly followed this formula in his phone calls with other heads of state. Biden called Canada on Jan. 22, his third day in office; Mexico and the UK (the US-UK alliance being a “special relationship”) on Jan. 23; and France and Germany, major European allies, on Jan. 24 and 25, respectively.

On Jan. 26, Biden called Russia about extending the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), a nuclear arms control pact. And on Jan. 27, he called Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Japan is the US’ chief ally in the Indo-Pacific region. This chronology isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

The order of Biden’s phone calls with the leaders of various countries

Canada on Jan. 22, Mexico and the UK on Jan. 23, France on Jan. 24, Germany on Jan. 25, Russia on Jan. 26, Japan on Jan. 27

Since the strategic rivalry between the US and China is gradually increasing the importance of the Indo-Pacific Region, the US’ alliance with Japan is critical for protecting the region’s peace and stability. That’s why the US uses the word “cornerstone” to describe that alliance.

Precedent shows that all four of the past US presidents, upon their inauguration, have spoken on the phone with the Japanese prime minister before the South Korean president.

The same sequence applies to face-to-face summits. The Japanese prime minister typically visits the US for a summit in February or March, soon after the new president takes office, while the South Korean president holds a summit at a later point, in May or June.

The only exception was in 2001, when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung scheduled his summit with US President George W. Bush in early March. Kim wanted to persuade Bush to support his “Sunshine Policy.” But Kim’s visit turned out to be a diplomatic fiasco, since it occurred before the US had a chance to thoroughly review its policy toward North Korea.


The sequence of phone calls between a newly inaugurated US president and the leaders of South Korea and Japan

* George W. Bush

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (Jan. 24, 2001), South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (Jan. 25, 2001)

* Barack Obama

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso (Jan. 28, 2009), South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (Feb. 3, 2009)

* Donald Trump

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Jan. 28, 2017), South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn (Jan. 30, 2017)

* Joe Biden

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (Jan. 27, 2021), South Korean President Moon Jae-in (?)

How will things be with Biden? Since South Korea’s international prestige has risen amid Seoul’s successful response to COVID-19, among other factors, it was widely predicted that Biden would speak on the phone with the leaders of South Korea and Japan on the same day, at the very least.

S. Korea’s elevated prestige and significance of Seoul-Washington alliance

For the US, South Korea is an ally that American soldiers shed blood to defend. The country is also a splendid example of people achieving both democracy and economic growth. That’s why the US uses the special term “linchpin” to refer to the South Korea-US alliance.

Due to this elevated international prestige, South Korea is now among the D10 group of major global democracies. And shortly after being elected president, Biden spoke with the leaders of US allies in the Indo-Pacific region — namely, South Korea, Japan and Australia — on the same day (Nov. 11, 2020).

For these reasons, some South Koreans are upset that Biden still hasn’t spoken on the phone with Moon, considering that he’s already spoken to Suga. But it’s hard to say for certain why Biden hasn’t gotten in touch with Moon yet.

Some think the US’ delay expresses its displeasure with the fact that Moon had a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Jan. 26 while his call with Biden was still pending. There could be something to that, but we won’t know the truth unless White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan publishes a tell-all memoir revealing every detail of decision making in the White House along the lines of John Bolton, a previous occupant of that position.

What’s interesting is the response of the Japanese press to the news of the first telephone conversation between Biden and Suga. Japanese newspapers breathed a collective sigh of relief when they covered Biden’s phone call to Suga on Jan. 28, the first Asian leader Biden had called.

Biden’s late night call to Suga because of old age?

The Sankei Shimbun reported that Suga had returned to his office late at night from his residence in Akasaka, Tokyo. More specifically, Suga arrived at his office at 11:47 pm on Jan. 27 and began the phone call an hour later, at 12:47 am on Jan. 28. Shortly before the phone call was actually made, a high-ranking official in Tokyo had reportedly said that the government wasn’t sure when it would happen.

That suggests that the US’ request for the phone call came abruptly. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, another Japanese paper, cited the advanced age of Biden, who’s 78 years old, as a reason for the US’ diplomatic faux pas of calling on a foreign leader so late at night. The newspaper suggested that 10-11 am was the best time for Biden to make a call, given the time difference between the US and Japan.

So what time will Biden call Moon? If the White House suddenly arranges a phone call this very night, Moon may find himself summoned to his office after he’s already gone home for the day, just like Suga. The stark reality is that when the US president is calling, no matter how late at night, no country in the world can say no.

By Gil Yun-hyung and Kim Ji-eun, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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