After four turbulent years of Donald Trump’s “America First,” officials in Japan will be hoping for a strong commitment to the alliance — and clarity of the United States’ vision for the region — during a visit to Tokyo by U.S. President Joe Biden’s top diplomat and defense chief.
But while the U.S. officials won’t be offering up a complete strategy for the Indo-Pacific just yet, both parties will use the meeting to set the agenda for the alliance, making abundantly clear the shifting U.S. and Japanese perceptions of China.
At the first “two-plus-two” meeting of the countries’ top diplomats and defense chiefs since 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will hold talks with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi on Tuesday. The four will tackle a variety of issues, including bolstering the alliance, reining in nuclear-armed North Korea, dealing with the coup in Myanmar, as well as the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions in waters near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands will take top billing at the meeting.
Although Japan is looking to balance its security concerns with its deeply entangled economic interests with Beijing, there is a growing appetite in Tokyo for a strong response to China’s moves near the strategically located islets in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by China and are known there as the Diaoyu.
Aside from daily Chinese incursions into waters near the Senkakus, a new Chinese law authorizing the use of force by its coast guard in waters it claims has also stoked unease in Tokyo and Washington. While the two allies have individually voiced concerns that the law risks escalating maritime disputes and could even trigger an accidental conflict, the two-plus-two meeting will be a chance to present a united front on the issue, observers say.
The meeting could see the U.S. and Japan agree on a joint statement that for the first time explicitly singles out China, including over its moves near the Senkakus and the coast guard law, media reports quoting Japanese government officials have said.
The two allies have in the past used the meeting to signal or clarify stances, including at the 2019 meeting. In the joint statement from those talks, the the two countries’ top diplomats and defense chiefs confirmed for the first time that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which sets out Washington’s obligations to defend territories under Tokyo’s jurisdiction, could apply to cyberattacks against Japan.
Tuesday’s joint statement could follow that precedent.
“The expected release of the statement is significant in that Japan has generally been fairly cautious in its approach to China,” said Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, an adjunct professor at Temple University in Tokyo. “Although it has repeatedly expressed its concerns over Chinese assertiveness, especially in the East China Sea, it has also stressed the need to improve relations with its neighbor and been wary of being seen as forming an ‘anti-China’ coalition.”
FOIP and the alliance
Officials in Tokyo will also be looking for a renewed commitment from the U.S. to their “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” push in the face of what the allies say are unilateral Chinese attempts “to alter the status quo by force or coercion.” They will be hoping to build on the results of the first-ever summit meeting of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” which groups the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.
In a joint statement after that meeting, the leaders said they are united in “a shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific,” and pledged to strengthen cooperation on “the defining challenges of our time.” That statement, however, did not mention China by name.
As for bilateral ties, Tokyo has touted the Biden administration’s decision to make Japan the destination of its first Cabinet-level overseas trip as a “a sign that the United States attaches great importance to the Japan-U.S. alliance,” according to the Foreign Ministry.
And in a fact sheet released just ahead of the U.S. officials’ scheduled arrival in Tokyo on Monday, the State Department had strong words for anyone doubting Washington’s security guarantee for Japan.
“The United States’ commitment to the defense of Japan is absolute,” the document said.
Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said the U.S. was hoping to squelch any remaining concerns in Japan that Biden could revert to a kind of “Obama 2.0” in terms of the new administration’s China policy.
The administration continues to conduct a review of its approach to China, but has already telegraphed a tougher stance toward Beijing with a flurry of moves, while Blinken has labeled the Asian country’s rise “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
“China … is all too willing to use coercion to get its way. Here again, we see how working with our allies is critical. Our combined power makes us stronger when we must push back against China’s aggression and threat,” Blinken and Austin wrote in an op-ed Sunday in The Washington Post.
Tatsumi also pointed to the timing of the pair’s visit, which will come just under two months into Biden’s term.
“It is very rare that a U.S. administration agrees to hold a two-plus-two so early in an administration,” she said.The two sides are also expected to discuss ways to enhance deterrence and defense capabilities, including the possibility of joint military exercises in the waters near the Senkakus.
Speaking at a news conference on Friday, Kishi said it was necessary to strengthen cooperation with allies and “convey this presence to other parties,” in an apparent reference to China.
“I think it’s very effective to show the other party that the U.S.-Japan alliance is solid and that the United States is with us,” he said.
But it won’t be all smooth sailing in Japan for Blinken and Austin, who are due to visit South Korea — the other U.S. ally in Northeast Asia — on Wednesday and Thursday.
The pair will have to contend with fraught ties between Tokyo and Seoul over history and trade issues that threaten to hamper trilateral ties.
Bilateral ties between Tokyo and Seoul have sunk to their lowest point in decades following South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 that ordered Japanese firms to compensate groups of South Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
In a positive sign for both capitals, however, Washington has made it clear that it is committed to helping improve ties between Seoul and Tokyo. And Blinken, himself, is a known quantity in both capitals, boasting a history of successes in working with both allies when he was the No. 2 at the State Department during the Obama administration.
“Secretary Blinken has been very committed in not only improving our relations with our allies, but also relations among them, and obviously relations within Japan and Korea are critically important for our security and stability. And so we would like to see an improvement in the relations,” Sung Kim, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said during a briefing ahead of the two-plus-two visit.
The trip to both countries also comes just as the Biden administration nears the end of its North Korea policy review, which Kim said would conclude “in the coming weeks.”
Blinken was due to update them on the policy review — and gain senior-level input on it from the allies — according to Kim, who added that the U.S. is expecting “a good exchange” about how the three can cooperate on the issue.
“Our message to them is that we will try to create opportunities for us to enhance trilateral cooperation,” Kim added.
But finding areas of common ground may be more difficult than envisioned: Japan is eager to keep pressure on North Korea over its increasingly potent nuclear and missile programs, while South Korea is looking to ease sanctions to create openings for engagement with the isolated regime.
In a signal that the U.S. may be leaning more toward Japan’s tougher approach, the U.S. has begun using the harder-line phrasing “denuclearization of North Korea” in official documents rather than “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which was used during the administration of former U.S. President Trump.
Still, the U.S. is hoping it can at the least convince the two to work with it to shore up deterrence measures over the threat posed to all three by the North as a kind of first step in nudging them closer.
“The Biden folks understand that Japan-South Korea (relations) need, first of all, to be focused on what the three allies are going to do when they look at North Korea, what they’re going to be able to do together,” said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I don’t think this is going to be a full-court press on the Japan-South Korea relationship, but I think it will be an in-depth conversation on North Korea,” she added.
Ultimately, whatever joint statement emerges from Tuesday’s talks with Japan will serve as a tool for strategic messaging and a road map for officials in both Tokyo and Washington on where to cooperate in the foreign policy and defense realms, observers say.
It will give an indication of where the two governments are seeking to steer the alliance for the next few years.
This will be especially important for the shape of future Sino-Japanese and U.S.-China ties, serving as an opportunity for the allies to devise a coordinated approach toward Beijing and demonstrate the strength of the alliance ahead of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s planned visit to Washington in the first half of April for talks with Biden. If that trip goes as planned, Suga will be the first foreign leader to meet with the new U.S. president in person since he took office on Jan. 20.
“While Tokyo already has a good sense of the direction the Biden administration intends to take regarding China, there is still a lot to be discussed when it comes to their approaches to security in the East and South China seas, trade ties to China, maritime security, and even human rights in the Xinjiang region, which has increasingly come under scrutiny in recent months,” Temple University’s Hardy-Chartrand said.
Following the visits to Tokyo and Seoul, Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska on Thursday, the first meeting under Biden of senior U.S. and Chinese officials.
The meeting will be a chance to address a wide range of issues, including ones where the two sides have deep disagreements, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
“We intend to discuss our expectations, and will be frank in explaining Beijing’s actions and behavior challenge to the security, prosperity — and our concerns about challenges they pose to the security and values of the United States and our allies and partners,” Psaki said.
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