Why Biden’s eye is on Tokyo

Why Biden’s eye is on Tokyo

Why Biden’s eye is on Tokyo
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While US President Joe Biden is heavily focused on the dangerous Russia stand-off in Ukraine, his attention was diverted last week by a summit with new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. 

At a time of growing tension with not just Moscow but also Beijing, Kishida could be a pivotal foreign figure during Biden’s presidency. The summit goals were therefore set to advance the two leaders’ shared vision for a free and open Asia-Pacific, closer cooperation on combating the pandemic, addressing the climate crisis and partnering on new technologies to rejuvenate the global economy.  

The critical importance of the US-Japan relationship for Biden was highlighted last year when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became the first world leader to meet him at the White House.  That highlighted the intensified Asia-Pacific foreign focus of the US president, especially after the Afghan withdrawal, and at Friday’s summit Biden accepted Kishida’s invitation to visit Japan this spring in the US president’s first visit to the region since he entered the White House.

The vast Asia-Pacific geography is the critical theater consuming much of Biden’s time, with China top of the bill.  The key item on the Biden-Kishida agenda was therefore Beijing and its growing assertiveness, which both leaders perceive to be undermining their vision of a free and open regional landscape. Amid continuing tensions in the South China Sea, it is not just Japan and the US, but also Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei that are in dispute with China in the waters through which about $5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes each year.  

However, Beijing was not the only focus in Friday’s summit; Pyongyang is also causing concern with its missile tests. Kishida and Biden not only condemned these launches, which violate UN Security Council resolutions, but also repeated the call for the Korean peninsula’s denuclearization.

Several areas of Friday’s discussion were particularly sensitive for China, including the disputed Senkaku Islands, an issue on which the Japanese prime minister said Biden had pledged strong support for Tokyo.  This puts Washington on a collision course, since the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea are also claimed by Beijing.

Even more incendiary, from China’s perspective, is the possibility that Japan will increasingly wade into the question of Taiwan’s security and its future as a democracy.  Beijing claims sovereignty over Taipei, which now counts Tokyo among its closest allies.

At a time of growing tension with not just Moscow but also Beijing, Kishida could be a pivotal foreign figure during Biden’s presidency.

Andrew Hammond

Any future cross-strait conflict would affect Japan, whose westernmost inhabited island of Yonaguni lies less than 120km off Taiwan’s east coast, and Tokyo is planning to increase its troop presence there.

Collectively, this is a big agenda, underlining the growing closeness in Japan-US ties.  It is no coincidence that not only was Suga the first world leader to meet Biden in 2021, but his predecessor Shinzo Abe was also the first to see Donald Trump in 2016.

In recent years, the key international relations goal of Kishida, Suga and Abe has been to fortify US-Japan ties in the face of significant international uncertainty.  Their charm offensive with Trump and Biden has paid dividends, with both pointing to the relationship as a foundation stone of peace in Asia-Pacific, and Trump signing a US-Japan economic agreement.

Beyond the security side of the relationship, Kishida also wants Biden to consider reversing Trump’s decision to withhold US participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.  This is the trade and investment deal originally intended to lock Washington into deeper partnership with US allies in the region, including Japan.

It is plausible that Biden may eventually seek to bring the US into this pact of 11 Asia-Pacific and Americas nations which account for around 13 percent of global trade and have a combined population of around 500 million.  However, any such move would probably need to wait until the second half of his presidency, given his priority focus now on curbing rising inflation and the pandemic, plus the political unpopularity of international trade in some key US states, of which he will be conscious before November’s mid-term elections. 

Taken together, this is why Friday’s Biden-Kishida summit was so important.  While the US president’s immediate foreign focus is Ukraine and Russia, he knows the relationship with Japan is one of the most pivotal in international relations today, and what they agree on regarding China in particular will affect not just Asia-Pacific, but globally too in the decade to come.  

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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