- US President Joe Biden welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House on Friday, 16 April, Biden’s first in-person summit with a foreign leader since his inauguration and Suga’s first visit to the US as prime minister.
- Despite Japanese concerns about Suga’s ability to conduct personal diplomacy and reports of potential friction between the two governments over the content of their joint statement, the summit marked a historic turning point for the US-Japan alliance.
The most significant development is that for the first time a bilateral leaders’ statement explicitly enumerated Chinese behavior that they view as a threat to the regional and global orders. While the two allies have been increasingly focused on China as the major threat to their alliance over the past two decades, the governments have historically been reluctant to refer to China directly. Now, after the leaders’ statement and the statement issued at the 2+2 meeting between the US secretaries of state and defense with their Japanese counterparts last month, the US and Japan have admitted that deterring Chinese military power, opposing China’s coercive activities in the East and South China Seas, and organizing efforts to counter China’s economic and political influence in Asia and in global institutions, are formal vocations of the alliance. The list in the statement extended to shared concerns about Chinese human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, reflecting a growing willingness by Japan to shed its historic reluctance to criticize China regarding human rights. Similarly, the statement referred to Taiwan for the first time in a bilateral leaders’ statement since 1969. Although the wording was fairly innocuous – referring to a shared interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait – it signals another area in which Tokyo is gradually shedding its inhibitions about addressing sensitive issues that could lead to friction in its relationship with China.
To a certain extent, this statement is symbolic, formalizing what has been apparent for some time. Meanwhile, the allies still have significant bilateral issues to address, including Japan’s defense spending; the footprint of US forces in Japan and the question of whether Japan will be willing to host intermediate-range ballistic missiles; establishing credible deterrence against the Chinese Coast Guard and Navy in the East China Sea; and what role Japan is willing to play in deterring Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait and in the event of a crisis. Meanwhile, despite widespread public hostility towards China, it is unclear how willing the public is to support a significantly more expansive approach to countering China. The Japanese business community, meanwhile, continues to view China as a crucial market and site for investment, which could eventually lead the private sector to push back against an overly hostile policy.
Nevertheless, the joint statement’s criticism of China served to frame the rest of the document, in which the allies announced a new economic partnership – the Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) partnership – to collaborate in order to achieve breakthroughs in the development of advanced technologies, and a new bilateral climate partnership, to carve out a leadership role in the global effort to achieve decarbonization. The allies also pledged to build upon the Quad Vaccine Experts Group, announced at the virtual Quad summit last month, to finance the production and distribution of vaccines to developing countries in the region, and to spearhead an effort to reform global public health institutions to detect and contain potential pandemic illnesses. While the two governments have considerable work to do fleshing out these initiatives, these programs seem designed to show that when developed democracies collaborate, they can outcompete China in the provision of regional and global public goods.
Furthermore, last week’s events provided meaningful insight into the Biden administration’s foreign policy. During the campaign and after taking office, Biden indicated that he would prioritize East Asia in his administration’s foreign policy and would stress rebuilding US alliances. Even before Suga arrived, Biden’s announcement last week that he will withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by September was a signal that his focus will be on Asia, which a senior administration official characterized as being in part intended to “to free up the time and attention and resources from our senior leadership and our military” to focus on the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, by inviting Suga to be the first world leader to visit the White House – following the secretaries of state and defense making Tokyo their first overseas destination – Biden demonstrated his commitment to both goals. The ambitious program outlined in the joint statement further demonstrates that the US administration will be relying heavily on Japan as a military and economic partner as it articulates its regional strategy. Morever, the White House also announced last week that South Korean President Moon Jae-in would visit Washington in May, showing that US allies in Asia are receiving attention at the highest levels of the administration.
Finally, the joint statement’s economic agenda – its initiatives on public health, 5G and beyond-5G technology, digital connectivity, supply chains, and green growth – essentially mark the beginnings of a new US regional economic strategy. Under the Trump administration, the US went from using the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to advance regional economic integration to withdrawing from TPP to prioritize the bilateral terms of trade with Japan and other countries. Last week’s summit showed that the Biden administration is virtually uninterested in bilateral trade issues and instead views cooperation with Japan as a vehicle for reengaging in regional economic integration and development. These initiatives may not be a perfect substitute for TPP membership – which still appears to be a political non-starter for the Biden administration – but they nevertheless signal that the new US administration wants to address regional economic challenges.