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U.S. President Joe Biden’s effort to harness U.S. alliances in Asia to counter China will get a test run during his summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday — his first in-person meeting with a foreign leader since taking office.

China’s shadow will loom large over almost every topic during Suga’s visit, from human rights to Taiwan to supply chain resilience. The two leaders plan to issue statements on the situation in the Taiwan Strait — a move sure to draw China’s attention — as well as announce a $2 billion initiative on 5G technology, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters on Thursday.

Yet how to strike a balance between deterring China while keeping Beijing, Japan’s largest trade partner, from lashing out will be a crucial issue as the two leaders seek to project a unified voice.

“Both countries recognize that the greatest challenge in the region is strategic competition with China,” said Nicholas Szechenyi, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So the question is how will the U.S. and Japan align their strategies to deal with China.”

Suga is set to meet Vice President Kamala Harris before his talks with Biden. The prime minister and the president are expected to hold a joint news conference after the talks.

The optics of a meeting with Suga just days after Biden announced a withdrawal from Afghanistan provide the most visible sign yet that the American president is determined to shift the center of gravity of U.S. foreign policy to the Indo-Pacific. And for Japan, being first into the White House gives Suga a prime chance to set the tone for ties with Washington over a slew of issues for years to come.

Friday’s meeting builds on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visits abroad last month to Japan and South Korea, and it comes amid China’s continuing assertiveness over Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the two leaders “will exchange opinions on a free and open Indo-Pacific, China,” North Korea, the coronavirus and climate change.

“Prime Minister Suga will meet with President Biden ahead of any other country’s leader, which is extremely significant in terms of showing both at home and abroad the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific region,” he told reporters.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed to congratulate and meet with President-elect Donald Trump in 2016, a decision seen as helping ingratiate him with the White House in the years that followed. But it did little to protect Japan from Trump’s penchant to enact trade barriers or press Tokyo to spend more to host American troops.

Displaying Unity

This time, Suga arrives seeking a public display of unity while having Biden reaffirm America’s security commitment. Suga also would welcome a pledge to cooperate on coronavirus vaccine supplies and any sign that Biden might reconsider his predecessor’s decision to quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc, though Japanese officials acknowledge that last issue is a nonstarter politically in Washington for now.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 31. | AFP-JIJI
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 31. | AFP-JIJI

Instead, coordinating a message on Taiwan and China’s human rights record may be a focus. Any mention of Taiwan would be the first in a joint statement since 1969, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.

Ahead of the meeting, China warned Japan to steer clear of “internal issues” including Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he hoped Japan could treat China’s development from an “objective and rational” perspective, rather than be led by the demands of countries he said are biased against China.

Last month, Blinken, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and both nations’ defense ministers made unusually explicit references to China’s “coercion and destabilizing behavior” and to concerns over human rights.

Yet despite Japan’s willingness to criticize China and step up its commitments on climate change, the two countries’ approaches aren’t entirely in lockstep.

While Japan is investing heavily in green energy and has set a zero-emissions target for 2050, it has been criticized for not moving aggressively enough to reduce emissions by 2030.

The senior U.S. official said Suga intends to discuss specific steps on climate that will put Japan at the lead worldwide in terms of an ambitious set of goals for 2030.

Jane Nakano, a senior fellow for energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expects Japan to share details with the Biden administration in advance of announcing by this summer a more robust plan to achieve its mid-century goals.

“The two leaders may also discuss the prospect for ending coal financing globally,” Nakano said in a briefing on Thursday.

And while Japan is worried about China’s military buildup, it is arguably just as concerned about undercutting economic ties. China is Japan’s biggest export market, with more than 13,000 Japanese companies operating in China, according to a survey published last year.

Lacking Sanctions

Suga has come under pressure, including from lawmakers in his own party, for Japan to join other major democracies in imposing sanctions on China over human rights abuses. But Japan lacks a legal framework to impose sanctions, and some members of its business community are opposed to the move.

“Japan doesn’t have a system to allow it to impose sanctions, and they haven’t really done this in the past,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “But they will send a message to show they are in harmony.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken bumps elbows with his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong on March 18. | BLOOMBERG
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken bumps elbows with his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong on March 18. | BLOOMBERG

A senior Japanese official said that while Tokyo is becoming increasingly vocal against China on human rights, it doesn’t think that sanctions and trade restrictions are a productive way to deal with Beijing. The official added that Japan and the U.S. plan to work closely on supply chain resilience, focusing on key areas such as raw materials and semiconductors.

Semiconductors have jumped up the political agenda as countries seek to secure the supply chain for chips that are vital to every aspect of digital life, from data centers to smartphones.

Suga will also be looking to Biden for support for the Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and plagued by public relations missteps. The Japanese government has billed the events — which kick off July 23 — as evidence that humanity is overcoming the virus.

“A positive message on this would be a big plus for Suga,” said Koji Murata, a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

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