When Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga arrived at the White House on Friday for his first meeting with Joe Biden — Biden’s first in-person meeting with a foreign leader as president — it was unclear what to expect. Would it merely be an icebreaker, a chance for the new president to get to know Japan’s still relatively new prime minister who had little experience on the world stage before ascending to the premiership?
By the end of the day, it was clear that the two governments had done far more than a meet-and-greet light on substance. The joint statement issued after the summit is nothing less than a complete re-imagining of the U.S.-Japan partnership for a new era.
Most importantly, for the first time, the two governments explicitly identified China as the preeminent challenge facing their alliance. Whereas past statements had alluded to maritime security threats and the need to uphold a rules-based international order, the new joint statement called out China by name, enumerating “activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order.”
In addition to now-familiar expressions of concern about maritime claims and coercion, the two leaders also identified human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as areas of concern. They also, for the first time since 1969, explicitly identified Taiwan as a shared interest, referring to the “importance of peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait.
While to a certain extent this statement merely formalized an already extant reality — and had also been expressed in a meeting between the secretaries of state and defense in a meeting with their Japanese counterparts in March — the two allies are now committed to using competition with China as an organizing principle for bilateral cooperation.
Importantly, although they pledged to enhance allied deterrence capabilities, the statement made clear that they view countering China not just as a matter of the military balance. Biden and Suga announced two major initiatives — the Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership and a climate partnership — intended to pool resources to compete with China for preeminence in the development of advanced technologies and to set the standard for decarbonization as both governments aim for net-zero emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, Friday’s summit built on last month’s virtual “Quad” summit with India’s Narendra Modi and Australia’s Scott Morrison, not only to ramp up the delivery of vaccines across the Indo-Pacific region, but also to strengthen the global architecture to detect and prevent the emergence of future pandemic illnesses.
To be sure, both governments will seek to find areas of common interest with Beijing. John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, was in Shanghai in the wake of the U.S.-Japan summit to hammer out an agenda for U.S.-China cooperation on climate change. Suga, meanwhile, said in their joint news conference Friday that they “agreed on the necessity for each of us to engage in frank dialogue with China.” He added in a tweet after the summit that a stable relationship with China “is important not just for Japan and China but for the peace and prosperity of the region and the international community.”
The reality of Japan’s dense economic ties with China will continue to keep Japan from embracing open-ended strategic competition. It is by no means guaranteed that Tokyo and Washington will always see eye to eye on how to respond to Chinese behavior even when they share concerns, as Japan’s decision not to join the U.S. and other democracies in sanctioning China in March for human rights abuses in Xinjiang shows.
Between last week’s announcement that U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September and the ambitious agenda for cooperation with Japan announced Friday, the Biden administration has strongly signaled that it is serious about its promises to prioritize East Asia and to work closely with allies to counter China’s power and influence.
The partnership outlined by Biden and Suga last week is intended to show that democratic allies working together can lead the way to a more prosperous, equitable and environmentally sustainable future that preserves space for democracy and human rights in Asia. But, having drawn up this vision, it will now be up to the Biden administration to ensure that its attention does not wander, that it secures from Congress the resources needed to realize its vision, and, when necessary, to nudge Japan and other allies to do the same.
Tobias Harris is Senior Fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.
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.