In the past month, the United States and Japan held a whirlwind of senior meetings, including a virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, aka “the Quad”) and bilateral meetings among senior officials for defense, foreign affairs, and national security.
But despite the plethora of policy coordination conferences, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will still have an agenda overflowing with security, alliance, economic, and public health issues at their April 16 meeting in Washington.
Biden’s choice of Suga as the first foreign leader he meets in person since assuming office underscores the importance both countries place on the alliance, the overall relationship, and their shared concerns about developments in the region, especially with respect to China.
For Suga, the meeting—his first summit since assuming the prime ministership last September—is also a test of his diplomatic and foreign policy acumen amid flagging domestic confidence in his leadership.
A successful meeting, and strong American affirmation of support, could bolster Suga’s political standing and counter speculation of the possibility of a snap election prior to the scheduled leadership vote in September.
Suga will invite Biden to attend the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a showcase event for Japan, which is struggling amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Both leaders will highlight policy alignment on security challenges, as well as cooperation on economic and trade issues.
In addition to China policy, Biden will discuss his administration’s North Korea policy, which is nearing completion after an extensive policy review.
Washington and Tokyo already agree on the necessity of maintaining sanctions on North Korea until it complies with U.N. resolutions requiring the regime in Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal.
Biden and Suga will affirm the importance of a rules-based Free and Open Indo-Pacific region and enhancing the Quad as a means to maintain stability and to tackle regional challenges.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set the intellectual foundations for both concepts, which were embraced and adopted into the U.S. National Security Strategy in 2017. Suga may call for the already agreed upon first in-person Quad summit to take place on the sidelines of the Group of Seven meeting in the U.K. in June.
In the March “two plus two” meeting of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin with their Japanese counterparts, they declared that China’s intimidating behavior in the East Sea and South China Sea “presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the Alliance and to the international community.” They also expressed “serious concerns” over China’s new law allowing its coast guard to shoot on foreign ships.
The two sides also underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and criticized China for human rights violations in Hong Kong and against minority Uighurs in Xinjiang Province.
The statement was notable because it reflected Japan’s growing willingness to directly criticize China, its largest trading partner. Tokyo first rebuked Beijing for its repeated incursions into the seas and airspace around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims for its own and more recently for human rights violations and intimidating behavior toward Taiwan.
Suga commented last week that Taiwan’s peace and stability is key to the region and that Japan will cooperate with the United States to calm rising tensions between China and Taiwan and to “use deterrence to create an environment where Taiwan and China can find a peaceful solution.”
If Biden and Suga stress bilateral support for Taiwan’s security in their joint statement, it would be significant, since it would be the first time since 1969, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon stressed in a statement that Taiwan’s security is crucial for Japan’s security.
A firm U.S.-Japan joint statement could trigger a strong Chinese response. In the run-up to the Biden-Suga meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in a phone call that Tokyo should “not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries, [nor] be misled by some countries holding a biased view against China.”
Beijing has been sending increasing numbers of aircraft, including bombers and fighters, into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone.
Biden and Suga will also discuss economic issues, such as Asian infrastructure projects and high-tech research in order to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and 5G telecommunication links.
Beijing has been using those initiatives to impose pressure on borrower Asian nations through “debt-trap diplomacy” to acquiesce to Chinese priorities on diplomatic issues.
The two leaders will also seek to address the global semiconductor chip shortage caused by the COVID-19 crisis disrupting the global supply chain. The scarcity of semiconductor chips has stalled auto manufacturing and risks ripple effects on auto-supplier firms, further affecting jobs across the United States.
The White House stated that the director of the National Economic Council and the national security adviser will lead a meeting with private sector companies to discuss the issue.
Despite strong policy convergence on many issues, there are still areas where Japan will come up short of U.S. expectations.
While Tokyo has been willing to criticize Beijing on human rights, it has not imposed economic penalties as the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and the European Union have. Japan lacks a legal framework to impose sanctions, though some Japanese ruling-party lawmakers have called for such legislation.
The Biden administration is expected to put more effort into behind-the-scenes cajoling of South Korea and Japan to compartmentalize difficult historical issues to enable greater coordination on addressing the threats of this millennium. But neither Seoul nor Tokyo has been willing to make sufficient steps to enable this to happen.
Moreover, South Korea remains wedded to a softer and less conditional approach to North Korea than Washington and Tokyo advocate, and is more reluctant to criticize China out of fear of economic retribution.
Japan continues to significantly augment its military capabilities and has relaxed some self-imposed constraints on their use in situations other than direct defense of the nation, including providing support to allied nations.
Tokyo’s recent statements on Taiwan are noteworthy, but more indicative of providing logistical support to the United States rather than joining in military operations.
The U.S. and Japan have a lot of work to do to get Japan more involved than that in the event of a serious military crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
The U.S.-Japan summit is another important opportunity to affirm U.S. commitment to its alliances and build on progress to develop multilateral organizations to address regional security concerns and challenges.
The U.S. should encourage Japan to assume additional security responsibilities, but the challenge will be to find the balance between pushing Tokyo past its comfort zone and understanding the many constitutional, legal, historic, budgetary, and societal restrictions that constrain Japan.
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