New Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga cleared his first diplomatic hurdle Tuesday, ensuring a smooth transition in U.S.-Japan relations during his meeting with State Secretary Mike Pompeo and pushing for stronger regional ties as China seeks to augment its already growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office took place ahead of the dialogue among foreign ministers from the so-called Quad countries — Japan, the United States, Australia and India — to discuss coronavirus pandemic responses and China’s increasing assertiveness.
Known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Japan particularly hopes to further advance what it calls its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” push, a vision touting the principles of freedom of navigation, free trade and dispute settlement based on the rule of law — a veiled censure against China as it has intensified its moves to assert control over the contested South China and East China seas.
Pompeo, speaking ahead of his meeting with the prime minister, credited Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, for his leadership in making bilateral ties “stronger than ever” and shared a dose of optimism that this trend would continue under the new leader.
“Prime Minister Suga was a powerful force for good for this relationship, too, when he was chief Cabinet secretary,” Pompeo said. “The United States has every reason to believe he will strengthen our enduring alliance in his new role.”
The meeting with Pompeo was Suga’s first face-to-face talks with a top foreign official since he took the helm of the country last month. Suga previously met with Pompeo in Washington in May 2019 when he was the chief Cabinet secretary under Abe. Such foreign trips are a rare occasion for the country’s top spokesman, and as a result it raised speculation at the time that Suga would possibly be Abe’s successor.
Suga’s first in-person meeting was meant to assuage concerns about the possibility of Japan and the U.S. drifting apart as Washington, the world’s largest economy, adopts increasingly aggressive tactics against China, the second-largest.
Pompeo, one of the Trump administration’s most vocal critics of the Chinese Communist Party, was later joined by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
At the beginning of the meeting, Suga introduced himself and welcomed them in English, before highlighting that the Indo-Pacific strategy has resonated with more countries.
“Under my administration, our basic policy is to further continue advancing our efforts to this end,” Suga said.
Ahead of the Suga-Pompeo talks Tuesday afternoon, the top U.S. diplomat met with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, with the two agreeing that both countries would cooperate on achieving the Free and Indo-Pacific vision. At the outset of the meeting, Motegi expressed sympathy for U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump following their coronavirus infections. He assured Pompeo that ties between Tokyo and Washington are “a cornerstone of peace and stability in the region” that will be carried on through the Suga administration.
The duo also discussed cybersecurity and North Korea, with Motegi making clear the repatriation of Japanese citizens abducted by North Koreans agents in the 1970s and 80s is one of the Suga administration’s highest priorities, which Pompeo said the U.S. will continue to support.
To advance the Indo-Pacific vision, Suga is slated to visit Indonesia and Vietnam later this month in his first foreign trip as prime minister. The two members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are seen by Tokyo as indispensable counterweights against Beijing.
In an interview with the media Monday evening, Suga expressed his eagerness “to build stable relationships with neighboring countries including China and Russia” based on the current nature of Japan-U.S. relations.
Speaking at a regular news conference Tuesday, Motegi also alluded to the possibility of working more closely with Japan’s neighbors — and others — in confronting challenges such as the international regulation of data flows and resolving tensions over the East and South China seas.
“In order to resolve these tensions, multilateral dialogue is very important. So what Japan is proposing is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific — that is freedom, democracy, rule of law and freedom of navigation,” he said.
“Nations that share those common values can participate in this vision.”
As for the Quad itself, Motegi noted that European nations such as France and Germany, which are both keenly interested in the Indo-Pacific and have cast a wary eye at China, are bolstering their commitment to the region.
“It’s important to cooperate with as many nations as possible that share these basic values and common rules,” Motegi said.
For now, though, the four Indo-Pacific democracies that make up the Quad continue to have their work cut out for them. This was highlighted when Japanese and U.S. officials effectively ruled out a joint statement emerging from the Quad meeting before it had even started.
Still, the symbolism of four regional powers uniting in the face of a recalcitrant China was likely to stoke concern in Beijing, analysts said.
Pompeo’s visit and the Quad meeting, meanwhile, faced the prospect of being overshadowed by Trump’s return to the White House after being hospitalized for three nights over his COVID-19 infection.
Still, his scaled-down trip — he was initially due to also visit South Korea and Mongolia — is seen by some observers as a final attempt by the top diplomat to highlight the administration’s policy in Asia.
But the choice to visit Tokyo and hold the Quad meeting in the Japanese capital was also noteworthy in that it could be Suga’s opening statement on what his foreign policy approach to the region — and especially toward China — will look like.
Some of the groundwork for this approach has already been laid, according to J. Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
According to Miller, Japan, which is expected to prove instrumental as the Quad evolves, has already put in motion a plan that promotes the grouping’s relevance while simultaneously de-emphasizing Tokyo’s core role in the group’s Indo-Pacific vision.
“This nuanced approach does not mean that Japan is uninterested in a robust Quad, but rather it intends to couple this security cooperation alongside broader regional engagement centered on its ties in Southeast Asia,” Miller said.
Once framed in official documents as the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Japan has since 2018 referred to the regional push as a “vision,” he noted.
While a simple shift, “the nuance of the change is important,” Miller said, as it allows Tokyo to present the stance to regional partners — especially those in Southeast Asia — as “a more euphemistic and practical term which allows easier buy-in from states potentially wavering” on endorsing it out of fears it may be perceived by Beijing as an attempt at containment.
Top Chinese officials have lambasted the Quad, including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who dismissed it as “an attention-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like ocean foam.”
When Suga makes his trip to Vietnam and Indonesia later this month, he will get a firsthand chance to test this theory.