When Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga steps into the Oval Office this week as the first foreign leader to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden, the top agenda item for their summit will be crystal clear: China.
Suga will meet Biden on Friday, and although the leaders’ summit is seen as the symbolic culmination of a spate of meetings between U.S. and Japanese officials highlighting the resilience of the countries' alliance, it will also serve as a chance for them to cement a unified stance on China — or at least clarify how far they’re willing to go together.
The U.S. has said that it won’t ask allies to choose sides in the growing Sino-American rivalry, but Washington is expected to use the meeting to at least nudge Tokyo in the direction of a stronger position on a number of issues involving Beijing.
The list of these is long, and Japan — for the most part — has signaled that it’s on the same page as the U.S. in terms of goals, especially when it comes to the increasingly fraught security realm.
Tokyo will be focused on the flashpoint Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu. Beijing has slowly but steadily ramped-up its activities near the tiny islets, routinely sending ships to the area to harass Japanese fishing vessels.
Officials in Tokyo have already telegraphed that Suga will also again receive reassurances from Biden that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which states that the United States will defend territories under Japan's administration from armed attack. But China’s new coast guard law — which allows it to fire upon foreign vessels viewed as infringing its sovereignty — has heightened Japan’s fears of a possible "gray zone" conflagration erupting near the islets.
Japan views gray zone situations, or those deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of a conventional military conflict, as nearly as serious as armed attacks by an enemy, and Suga will be looking to discuss possible responses to such scenarios with Biden.
On Taiwan, media reports citing Japanese officials have said that Suga and Biden will sign a joint statement highlighting the importance of “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait. This will come just days after China sent its largest fleet ever of 25 warplanes for training near the self-ruled island and as the issue gains more traction with some ruling party lawmakers.
Asked if the growing sense of crisis in the U.S. over Taiwan’s fate would come up in the talks, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday that the two would “discuss how to secure peace and stability” in the area.
Suga himself has stressed the necessity of cooperation with Washington on the issue.
“It’s important for Japan and the United States to work together and maintain deterrence to create an environment in which Taiwan and China can find a peaceful solution,” he said recently.
A joint statement mentioning Taiwan would be the first by a U.S. and Japanese leader since Tokyo and Washington normalized ties with Beijing. The last time came in 1969, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon called the self-ruled island’s security “a most important factor for the security of Japan.” The allies’ top diplomats and defense chiefs issued a similar statement last month during their so-called two-plus-two meeting in Tokyo.
“Japan and the U.S. always agreed, albeit privately, that Taiwan’s security was a top priority to address, and one that may even bring Japan into a future fight,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank. “But the urgency of maintaining Taiwan’s security grows with each passing day, and so that is why it would be unsurprising if this topic spilled out into the public domain.”
Suga could also face a call from Biden to bolster Japan’s contributions to defending human rights in Asia, especially over China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority in its far-west Xinjiang region.
The two sides have been worlds apart on the issue, at least in public. While the U.S. has labeled the crackdown “genocide,” Japan was the sole Group of Seven nation not to back recent sanctions on Chinese officials over the repression in Xinjiang, citing its lack of a legal framework for such actions.
Tokyo has been wary of pushing back too strongly against Beijing for fear of totally alienating its powerful neighbor and top trading partner. But, facing pressure from lawmakers in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party as well as from the U.S., the prime minister has apparently resigned himself to issuing a modest condemnation of the Xinjiang crackdown in the joint statement, Japanese government officials have said.
Japan has already been the subject of criticism from Beijing over its two-plus-two statement, with Chinese officials labeling Tokyo “a strategic vassal" of the U.S. and state-run media running fiery editorials threatening undefined “consequences for those who take the initiative to undermine its sovereignty, security and development interest.”
Even a relatively mild reproach of Beijing’s behavior by Japan at the summit will likely prompt a furious reaction from China, though it’s unclear if this will go beyond mere heated rhetoric.
On the multilateral front, the two leaders are expected to pledge to work both bilaterally and as part of the four-nation “Quad,” which also includes Australia and India, toward a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Beijing has lambasted the grouping as a military alliance akin to an “Asian NATO” with a goal of containing China, a charge Quad members have denied.
The pair will also discuss ways to improve economic cooperation, especially in the face of what Biden has called China’s “coercive and unfair economic practices.” This could focus on securing supply chains for rare earths and semiconductors, as well as for medical equipment that has become essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suga, meanwhile, will be eager to broach the issue of global warming and Japan’s role in tackling the issue ahead of a U.S.-sponsored climate change summit scheduled for next week. The prime minister pledged late last year to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, and Biden is poised to unveil a wide-ranging climate plan that reportedly commits to emissions cuts of 50% or more from 2005 levels by 2030.
Asked about the the two leaders’ stances, a senior Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that when it comes to climate change, Suga and Biden are “heading in the same direction.”
Working together could also heap pressure on China and curtail its influence on the climate change front by forcing it to work multilaterally, observers say.
This type of approach would be in line with Tokyo’s long-standing preference for dealing with Beijing, since it could minimize friction and overt criticism of China.
“Suga will certainly try to avoid entanglement of Japan in the U.S. hard line toward China, especially in light of the Olympics, the 50th anniversary of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations in 2022 and China’s importance for Japanese post-COVID-19 economic recovery,” said Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University.
Suga will also be hoping that the meeting provides at least some bump to his support rate, as an election that could decide his electoral fate looms.
The prime minister has attempted to fend off criticism over a spate of scandals and his government’s pandemic response, with a Kyodo News poll released Monday putting his Cabinet’s approval rating at 44.0%, up 1.9 percentage points from the previous survey last month. The disapproval rate declined to 36.1% from 41.5%.
Although visits to Washington by Japanese prime ministers early on in new U.S. administrations are common practice, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato has lauded the summit — and Suga being the first world leader to meet in person with Biden — calling it “extremely significant” and noting that it “highlights the unity of the Japan-U.S. alliance.”
“The visit will help Suga to redirect public focus away from the string of domestic political scandals and criticism over his pandemic crisis management,” said Maslow. “It is, however, unlikely that his visit to the White House will be sufficient to recover … public support.”
Ultimately, though, what comes of the two allies’ response to China’s growing assertiveness in the region — and if they can set in motion a longer-term plan for dealing with this — will garner the most attention at the summit.
Japan and the United States “are at the starting point with this long strategic competition with China" and are "trying to draw that strategic map,” Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor at Keio University and an expert on U.S.-Japan relations, said during an online event last week.
“The purpose of this visit is to show to the region and to show to other partners in the region that the U.S.-Japan alliance is on firm ground and that we’re focused on defending the liberal and open international order in our region,” he said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.