The Japan-US security alliance relationship has remained as the lynchpin in the security construct of East Asia for the past over seven decades. Bilateral ties have been strengthened over the years through continuous interactions between political leaders at the highest level with visits to each other’s countries.
These US alliance relationships with Japan and South Korea have helped in maintaining peace and stability in the region, despite the fact that threats loom large from certain quarters on a regular basis. In continuation of this narrative, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga shall travel to the US on 16 April 2021, the first foreign leader to meet new US President Joe Biden in person since he took office in January 2021. Suga’s first visit to the US as Prime Minister demonstrates the kind of importance the US attaches to Japan and the US commitment to engage in the Indo-Pacific region.
Earlier the visit was planned for 9 April but was postponed as details and schedules could not be coordinated in time and because of circumstances on the US side. As per the latest decision, Suga shall depart Japan on 15 April and depart Washington on 17 April after extensive talks on a host of issues including China, South China Sea, the pandemic, North Korea and others. Suga is scheduled to meet Biden on 16 April, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato.
Besides its commitment to strengthen Japan-US ties, the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign and security policies, the discussions are expected to cover how to deal with China, North Korea’s nuclear development and the issue of abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea and how to advance a joint vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to promote a rules-based order in the region.
Climate change and the fight against the pandemic are also expected to be discussed. The current pandemic has put some constraints as the size of the Japanese delegation was decided to be kept to a maximum of about 80 to 90 people. The participants will be vaccinated ahead of the trip. Suga has already got his first shot on March 16 and is expected to have a second shot within days.
What are the main agenda items likely to figure in the discussion? Obviously, both Biden and Suga are expected to discuss shared concerns about China’s expansionist moves. In March, Japan and the US held 2+2 meetings when the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Chief Lloyd Austin visited Japan. So, even in these difficult times of the coronavirus, bilateral dialogues are going on, mostly on virtual mode, to keep the process on-going.
Both sides are also expected to firm up cooperation of an international summit on climate change, to be held in the US on April 22. Besides discussing shared concerns about China’s expansionist moves, Suga and Biden are also expected to discuss the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait. Japan, the US and the rest of Asia are concerned that China in February enacted a new law that authorises its coast guard to seize foreign ships entering waters claimed by Beijing.
Besides putting more pressure on Taiwan, Japan is also affected since it controls the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls Diaoyu. Japan is troubled by Chinese coast guard ships’ entry on a continuous basis into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, thus worsening tensions.
The Japanese Defense Ministry think-tank, The National Institute for Defense Studies in March published a report titled “East Asian Strategic Review 2021” in which it asserted that China’s coast guard could step up armament and provocations around the Japanese- controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea following the enforcement of a controversial Chinese law. There have been several cases of illegal intrusion by Chinese vessels into the East China Sea since the enactment of the law. China also claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Asian region has witnessed China’s increased maritime activities. This could be because Beijing fears America’s increasing military presence as Sino-US trade disputes considerably increased when the Donald Trump administration adopted tough measures against China in order to reduce the adverse trade deficit. With no positive response and Beijing resorting to retaliatory measures, the US policy towards the Indo-Pacific started getting more robust. The focus shifted to further beefing up alliance relationships with the Asian countries. China’s BRI initiative also came under the scanner with the fear of many small nations around the world falling into China’s debt trap. The strengthening of the Quad initiative in quick time also can be seen as a response to China challenge. Democratic countries in Asia and elsewhere also do not approve of China’s abuse of the Uyghur minority and crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. Coming at a time of renewed focus on China’s activities, Suga’s talks with Biden are expected to cover these areas and explore a new approach by the world community for an appropriate response. Also to be noted, in early March the Pentagon chief and top US diplomat visited Japan when Japan and the US warned China against “coercion and destabilising behaviour”.
Given Beijing’s growing bonhomie with North Korea despite the latter’s relentless surge in nuclear developments and missile firings, latest being in March to unsettle Biden, there has been a greater urgency in strengthening the Japan-US alliance. Instead of discouraging North Korea from its provocative actions, Beijing helps sustain the regime in Pyongyang with open and at times hidden financial and political support, thereby violating US sanctions.
Suga is also expected to use the trip to invite Biden to the Tokyo Olympics, due to begin on 23 July after a year’s pandemic delay. Both Japan and the US are also likely to agree on strengthening cooperation over infrastructure projects in other countries, in response to China’s BRI projects that aims to create a huge economic bloc.