Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday morning for the first time since the latter won the U.S. presidential election, with Tokyo saying that the soon-to-be-inaugurated leader reassured Suga that his administration will commit to protecting the Senkaku Islands under their security alliance.
Speaking to reporters after the roughly 15-minute teleconference, the prime minister said the president-elect made clear that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation would apply to the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands. The article states that the U.S. would defend the territories under Japan’s administration in the event of an armed attack.
The apparent affirmation by Biden on the Senkaku Islands, which was previously re-emphasized by President Barack Obama around the time Chinese vessels began entering waters near them, brings a sigh of relief for Tokyo officials as they monitor Biden’s approach to China with a mix of expectation and trepidation.
However, the Biden transition team’s readout did not mention the islands by name but stated that Biden “underscored his deep commitment to the defense of Japan and U.S. commitments under Article V.” A senior Japanese government official who was present during the talks said Biden brought up Article 5 in response to Suga’s remark on shoring up the security alliance and it was Tokyo’s understanding that the Senkaku Islands would be covered. They did not discuss the island’s dominium, according to the official.
As one of the first Asian leaders to speak with President Donald Trump’s successor, Suga said he congratulated Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris for their victory. Both sides, Suga said, agreed to work together on global issues such as climate change and the novel coronavirus pandemic. They also agreed to enhance cooperation to maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific region, a matter that directly impacts Japan’s national security as well as regional security.
“I believe the teleconference was very meaningful as we are going to work to strengthen the alliance even more with President-elect Biden,” Suga said. “I told the president elect that the alliance is indispensable for the peace and prosperity of our neighboring region and international society, and that further reinforcement is necessary. Additionally, I told him we’d like to cooperate with the U.S. to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato touted that Article 5’s application to the Senkaku Islands was brought up during the talks, saying it was a strong sign the Biden administration will maintain the status quo.
The phone talks with the president-elect came at a fraught and highly unusual moment in American politics as Trump refuses to concede the election, attributing the result to unsubstantiated accusations of voting fraud.
Although the Republican party leadership has thrown its support behind the president’s endeavor to flip the outcome through court battles, world leaders have already moved on and begun to cultivate ties with the incoming president. Biden has also had phone calls with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, among others.
Asked about a visit to Washington, Suga said no concrete plans had been made but both leaders agreed to meet in person “as soon as possible.” Since it is unlikely that Suga’s first visit to Washington as prime minister will take place before the end of the year, speculation has grown that a trip could be scheduled around late January or February, after Biden takes office.
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