March 16, 2021

Asia

JAPAN/US: Allies take sharper tone on China but next steps unclear

BY Tobias Harris

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( 6 mins)
  • Ministerial-level talks between US and Japanese officials produced a more explicit condemnation of China’s behavior than ever before.
  • The statement acknowledges the reality that the two allies are increasingly focused on deterring and countering China, but it is unclear how their alliance will adapt.
  • North Korea was less prominent, and there are few signs that the Biden administration is prepared for a new approach.

The Japanese government hosted a meeting on Tuesday, 16 March between Foreign and Defense Ministers Toshimitsu Motegi and Nobuo Kishi and their US counterparts, Secretaries of State and Defense Tony Blinken and Lloyd Austin for a 2+2 meeting, the first in nearly two years. The most significant outcome of the meeting was a joint statement that included what is likely the strongest language on China’s behavior ever included in a US-Japan bilateral document. However, while Tuesday’s meetings produced important signals about the Biden and Suga administration’s priorities, it is less clear what the next steps for allied cooperation will be.

A new tone on China

Previous bilateral joint statements have generally avoided explicitly mentioning China, instead referring obliquely to its behavior. The statement issued, however, referred to China by name and voiced a long list of concerns, noting, “China’s behavior, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the Alliance and to the international community.” The concerns identified include maritime activities – including the new coast guard law – in the East and South China Seas, China’s posture in the Taiwan Strait, and human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

There are three takeaways from Tuesday’s meetings. First, the Biden administration appears to be looking to Tokyo as the linchpin of its regional strategy. It is significant that Blinken and Austin made Tokyo the first stop on their first foreign trip, and that next month Suga will be the first foreign leader to visit President Joe Biden at the White House. Second, between last week’s Quad summit and ministerial meetings in Tokyo, Seoul, and New Delhi this week, the Biden administration is building out a regional strategy to counter China that relies heavily on coordination with allies. There is no return to the status quo before the Trump administration. Finally, the Suga administration’s willingness to condemn Chinese behavior suggests that Japan’s China policy may also be reaching a tipping point. Whereas former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been preparing to host a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2020 as the culmination of three years of outreach, not only has Xi’s visit been indefinitely postponed but Tokyo is now increasingly prepared to criticize China explicitly for its maritime activities and its human rights violations at home. The result could be a new freeze between Tokyo and Beijing.

It is unclear what impact this rhetorical milestone will have on Japan’s still-dense economic relationship with China. While Japanese companies have continued to diversify their investments in Asia, they continue to have an outsized presence in China. In the past, Corporate Japan has been an important counterweight in advocating for stability and restraint in the bilateral relationship, but in the current climate it may be difficult for business leaders to play that role.

North Korea a secondary concern

By comparison, the statement’s language on North Korea was relatively perfunctory. It is notable, however, that the statement referred to the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” – language also included in last week’s Quad statement – suggesting that the Biden administration is thus far not inclined to scale back US demands for denuclearization and instead seek controls and limits on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. It is perhaps not surprising that Pyongyang has thus far been cool to diplomatic overtures from Washington, and could be preparing some kind of missile test.

Meanwhile, the joint statement also stressed the importance of trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan, and South Korea, which Blinken has signaled will be a priority. This message will likely be repeated when Blinken and Austin travel to Seoul on Wednesday. There is no sign, however, that Japan and South Korea will be able to achieve a breakthrough that resolves their standoff. The Japanese government has been adamant that a diplomatic settlement will be difficult if not impossible as long as South Korean courts continue to issue rulings about reparations owed by Japanese companies to colonial-era forced laborers and the Japanese government to wartime “comfort women.” With President Moon Jae-in increasingly embattled as he heads into his final year in office, the Suga administration may be reluctant to be flexible with Moon and may prefer to hold out for a better deal with a new South Korean administration.

The agenda for the alliance

The joint statement indicated that the four officials would hold another meeting by the end of the year – and the two governments will have to negotiate a new special measures agreement (SMA) regarding cost-sharing for hosting US Forces in Japan after they extended the prevailing agreement for another year. However, while the two governments agreed that they would continue to discuss deeper cooperation between their armed forces, in practice it is unclear whether there will be any significant changes to the division of labor or institutional structure of the alliance in the near term. While Washington will continue to encourage Japan to assume a greater role within the alliance and in the regional security environment, it is still unclear whether increasing hostility towards China from both Japanese elites and the public will translate into support for a more expansive Japanese security posture. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision last year to shelve a wider-reaching review of Japan’s security policies in part due to the difficulty in securing the approval of the junior ruling coalition partner Komeito and public support more broadly suggests domestic constraints may remain significant.

Meanwhile, with no sign that the Biden administration is considering rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), economic cooperation will be focused on smaller initiatives related to climate change, supply chain resilience, and combating Covid-19, similar to what was announced by the Quad last week.

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