Japan has after decades of circumspection shown a willingness to directly call out Chinese behaviour that falls foul of the international order and to affirm its opposition to Beijing’s coercive and destabilising acts thanks, in the main, to the Joe Biden administration’s embrace of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept.
Tokyo has also welcomed President Biden’s efforts to stop the downward spiral in its relations with South Korea. And it has been rewarded – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is likely to be the first foreign leader to visit the Biden White House for a summit meet in the first week of April.
Experts are veering around to the view that Washington’s robust diplomatic outreach to allies and like-minded countries in Asia has been welcome news for Tokyo.
In fact, concerns that Team Biden would not take complete ownership of the FOIP or adopt a softer line on China have quickly dissipated, say observers. With the successful culmination of the first ever Quad summit meeting (involving the USA, Japan, India, and Australia), and the USA-Japan 2+2 meeting in Tokyo among foreign and defence ministers earlier this month, Japan has clearly emerged as the lynchpin of the Biden Administration’s Asia strategy.
The 2+2 joint statement stands out for the broad convergence of priorities and agreement to intensify efforts by the two allies in the areas of defence, coordination with like-minded democracies, protection of the rules-based order, and tackling transnational challenges.
Significantly, Tokyo and Washington identified “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” as a key concern. Both countries also acknowledged the importance of trilateral cooperation between the USA, Japan, and South Korea as Kim Jong Un looks to pre-empt the outcome of the Biden Administration’s ongoing review of America’s North Korea policy by expanding his nuclear and missile capabilities thereby effectively ending prospects of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
The crucial question for Japan now is whether ~ and how ~ it goes about maintaining its careful balancing act vis-à-vis China. After all, China is Japan’s largest trading partner with the total value of bilateral trade between the two countries estimated to be north of $330 billion.
Not just Washington, Tokyo will need the support of ~ and policy coordination with – its other allies and friends in the region as well if it is to play its role as a vital peg in the evolving strategic architecture which seeks to limit Beijing’s perceived overreach. It is in this context that Japan’s suggestion over the weekend to include the Asean countries in the trilateral (Japan-Australia-India) Supply Chain Resilience Initiative which seeks to reduce dependence on China and build resilient supply chains in the Indo-Pacific must be seen.