But despite the plethora of policy coordination conferences, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will still have an agenda overflowing with security, alliance, economic, and public health issues at their April 16 meeting in Washington.
In the past month, the United States and Japan held a whirlwind of senior meetings, including a virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, aka “the Quad”) and bilateral meetings among senior officials for defense, foreign affairs, and national security.
Biden’s choice of Suga as the first foreign leader he meets in person since assuming office underscores the importance both countries place on the alliance, the overall relationship, and their shared concerns about developments in the region, especially with respect to China.
For Suga, the meeting—his first summit since assuming the prime ministership last September—is also a test of his diplomatic and foreign policy acumen amid flagging domestic confidence in his leadership.
A successful meeting, and strong American affirmation of support, could bolster Suga’s political standing and counter speculation of the possibility of a snap election prior to the scheduled leadership vote in September.
Suga will invite Biden to attend the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a showcase event for Japan, which is struggling amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Both leaders will highlight policy alignment on security challenges, as well as cooperation on economic and trade issues.
In addition to China policy, Biden will discuss his administration’s North Korea policy, which is nearing completion after an extensive policy review.
Washington and Tokyo already agree on the necessity of maintaining sanctions on North Korea until it complies with U.N. resolutions requiring the regime in Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal. Biden and Suga will affirm the importance of a rules-based Free and Open Indo-Pacific region and enhancing the Quad as a means to maintain stability and to tackle regional challenges.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set the intellectual foundations for both concepts, which were embraced and adopted into the U.S. National Security Strategy in 2017. Suga may call for the already agreed upon first in-person Quad summit to take place on the sidelines of the Group of Seven meeting in the U.K. in June. In the March “two plus two” meeting of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin with their Japanese counterparts, they declared that China’s intimidating behavior in the East Sea and South China Sea “presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the Alliance and to the international community.” They also expressed “serious concerns” over China’s new law allowing its coast guard to shoot on foreign ships.
The two sides also underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and criticized China for human rights violations in Hong Kong and against minority Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. The statement was notable because it reflected Japan’s growing willingness to directly criticize China, its largest trading partner. Tokyo first rebuked Beijing for its repeated incursions into the seas and airspace around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims for its own and more recently for human rights violations and intimidating behavior toward Taiwan.
Suga commented last week that Taiwan’s peace and stability is key to the region and that Japan will cooperate with the United States to calm rising tensions between China and Taiwan and to “use deterrence to create an environment where Taiwan and China can find a peaceful solution.” If Biden and Suga stress bilateral support for Taiwan’s security in their joint statement, it would be significant, since it would be the first time since 1969, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon stressed in a statement that Taiwan’s security is crucial for Japan’s security.
A firm U.S.-Japan joint statement could trigger a strong Chinese response. In the run-up to the Biden-Suga meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in a phone call that Tokyo should “not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries, be misled by some countries holding a biased view against China.” Beijing has been sending increasing numbers of aircraft, including bombers and fighters, into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone.
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