Biden looks east for allies and adversaries
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will this month become the first world leader to meet face to face with Joe Biden, highlighting the Asia-Pacific foreign focus of the new US president.
It is that vast geography that will probably be the critical theater consuming much of Biden’s time. Top of the agenda for Biden at the April 16 session will be Beijing and its growing assertiveness, which is undermining his vision of a “free and open” Asia-Pacific. An example is the continuing tensions in the South China Sea, where not just Japan and the US, but also other countries such as Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, are in dispute with China in waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year.
But Beijing will not be the only focus as Pyongyang is also causing concern following its two ballistic missiles tests last month. Suga and Biden will not just condemn the test firing, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, but also call for the Korean peninsula’s complete denuclearization.
The announcement that will steal the headlines is the prospect of Suga and Biden affirming that the Senkaku Islands, a source of much tension between Tokyo and Beijing, fall under the scope of Article 5 of the Japan-US security treaty. This puts Washington on a collision course with Beijing, since the US is pledged to defend territories under Japan’s administration from armed attack, while the Japan-controlled uninhabited islands in the East China Sea are claimed by China.
Potentially incendiary too, from Beijing’s perspective, is the possibility that Tokyo will side with Washington over the question of Taiwan’s security and its future as a democracy. Suga and Biden will apparently agree on the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait, which would be the first time Taiwan has been jointly mentioned by US and Japanese leaders for decades, a move that Chinese media claims would “impair national interests.”
Beijing claims sovereignty over the island, which now counts Tokyo among its closest allies and has been an unofficial US partner in Asia for decades. Any future cross-strait conflict would impact Japan. Its westernmost inhabited island of Yonaguni, home to about 1,700 inhabitants and 200 soldiers, lies less than 120km off Taiwan’s east coast, and Tokyo is planning to increase its troop presence there.
Suga will seek to build on Abe’s achievements, and stress to Biden that Japan would welcome even greater stability in ties after being caught by surprise on several fronts by Trump.
If these two reported developments are confirmed, the tension in US-Japanese-China relations will grow significantly. Even since the meeting last month in Alaska between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the mood music has dampened with the Biden administration’s sanctions on Beijing over its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Collectively, this is a big agenda and underlines the growing closeness in Japan-US ties. It is no coincidence that Suga is the first world leader to meet Biden, just as his predecessor Shinzo Abe was first to see Donald Trump soon after the latter’s election in 2016.
The key international relations goal of Suga and Abe has been to fortify US-Japan ties in the face of significant international uncertainty. Abe’s charm offensive with Trump paid some dividends, with latter pointing to the relationship as the “cornerstone of peace” in Asia-Pacific and, despite his “America First” philosophy, he reaffirmed the strong US commitment to the “security of Japan.” This was a particularly significant achievement given Trump’s negative comments about Japan during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Suga will seek to build on Abe’s achievements, and stress to Biden that Japan would welcome even greater stability in ties after being caught by surprise on several fronts by Trump. One of these areas was North Korea, and Abe was worried Trump might do a deal with Kim Jong Un under which Pyongyang would have agreed to give up missiles capable of reaching the US without eliminating other missiles that threaten Japan.
Securing these commitments are important for Suga for two reasons. First, he is facing elections this year. Second, it will reassure his nation about the strength of US-Japan ties given the populace’s concerns about a “rising China.” Beyond the security side of the relationship, Suga will also discuss with Biden whether the new president might reverse Trump’s decision to withhold participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership originally intended to lock Washington into deeper economic partnerships with US regional allies.
Taken together, this is why the Biden-Suga summit is so important. With the relationship one of the most important in international relations today, what is agreed about China and North Korea will not only affect Asia-Pacific, but have global ramifications too.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics