On Friday, April 16, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will visit President Joe Biden at the White House. Optics will undoubtedly be the first leadership personal summit since Biden’s inauguration. It will serve as a resumption of personal diplomacy at a time when both the United States and Japan have recently seen shifts in leadership. Thus, President Biden and Prime Minister Suga will be given a rare opportunity in our era of pandemic: face-to-face communication and the development of personal relationships, both of which are essential to creating bonds of trust. The meeting will provide an opportunity for China to consult and coordinate ahead of the upcoming multilateral climate change summits and the Group of Seven + 3 (which includes India, South Korea and Australia).
By inviting Suga first, the Biden administration is working to cement Japan’s position as an indispensable ally in addressing disturbing regional and global challenges and reaffirming the top priority he attaches to the Indo-Pacific region. Accepting this apparent respect, Shawqa faces and tests his most important diplomatic opportunity since taking office last fall. Without much direct contact with foreign leaders in his previous career, he could use the White House meeting to put his own imprint on Japan’s foreign policy and build his statesman credentials. Coming out of this summit as an accomplished handler of Japan’s most important security relationship would also serve the prime minister well when he confronts Japanese voters later this year in the general election.
Expectations over the Biden-Suga summit are high, as it will culminate in a powerful blitzkrieg diplomatic war in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Last month, the first-ever Quartet Summit (with concrete results on vaccine diplomacy and the creation of working groups on climate change and emerging technologies) was followed by 2 + 2 meetings of foreign and defense ministers in Tokyo and Seoul with the Americans. Counterparts. Shortly thereafter, the national security advisers of Japan and South Korea traveled to Washington to meet with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. These consultations and joint initiatives with allies and partners marked the end of the high-level meeting between US and Chinese officials in Alaska.
From this turmoil in diplomatic activity, Tokyo and Washington emerged more consistent and prepared for common lines of effort. There was greater convergence around the strategic framing of the China challenge. Tokyo surprised many with its joint statement issued by the 2 + 2 meeting to directly call for China’s firm behavior that destabilizes the international system. The joint affirmation of the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait did not go unnoticed. The Biden administration rejected all-out rivalry with China, stressing instead stiff competition and selective cooperation – the preferred framework for Japanese policymakers. Leveraging the US-Japan alliance and the broader expansion of cooperation among the Quartet democracies to deliver public goods to the region and beyond is an important repositioning process. A coalition that embodies the “can-do” stance could help the United States regain ground lost from the past four years of a defensive and narrow binary. It benefits from strong complementarities, as the United States bears a heavy burden on security and defense, while Japan plays its strengths through its long-term pathway to finance infrastructure, development, and strengthened supply chain connectivity in Asia.
At Friday’s summit, Biden and Suga are preparing to endorse an increasingly common framework for strategic challenges in Asia, to find common cause in support of democracy and human rights, and to highlight the potential of a coalition to solve problems. In addition to the COVID-19 response, the outcomes of the summit may be imminent in the areas of climate change and supply chain strengthening. It is only recently that Suga has increased Japan’s decarbonization ambitions. Hence, Japan’s ability to bring ambitious climate initiatives to the table – including rethinking financing for coal-fired power plants overseas – will be tested. But Japan is more experienced in reducing dependence on China for strategic commodities (rare earths), and Japanese companies play an important role in specific nodes of the semiconductor supply chain and other advanced industries. Developing a reliable supplier network, diversifying supply sources, and promoting complementarities between American and Japanese companies in high-tech supply chains are fruitful areas for future cooperation.
The close alignment between the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific is evident, but the gaps between allies are also clear and will require careful management.
The close alignment between the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific is evident, but the gaps between allies are also apparent and will require cautious management. While the Japanese government has condemned China’s repression of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and the violence launched by the Myanmar junta against its people, it has refrained from imposing sanctions. There is concern in some quarters of Japanese politics about leaning forward in the face of China and sacrificing the carefully regulated rapprochement that began a few years ago. Although the Biden administration raises the importance of alliances, it is taking a defensive stance on trade and investment relations under the slogan “Buy America” and “Made in America”. Hence, it is competing with China with a self-imposed impediment: the lack of a positive trade agenda. Besides, the broader concerns will of course remain unspoken when the leaders meet in Washington, namely, the instability of US diplomacy from one administration to the next and the concern that Japanese leaders’ instability will yet return. Thus, domestic politics looms large in the ability of both countries to revive the spirit of a “can-do” alliance that can position allies to compete effectively with China and provide assistance to the region and the world in recovering from the COVID-19 attack.