Explained: Suga-Biden Summit - Strengthening Alliance
Prof Rajaram Panda

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was the first foreign leader to travel to the US on 16 April in this time of pandemic to meet the US President Joe Biden. This was also Suga’s first visit to the US as Prime Minister though he had earlier visited two Southeast Asian countries demonstrating Japan’s concern and commitment to be in sync with the friendly countries on issues of regional security and commitment to engage in the Indo-Pacific region.

So, what were the issues Suga discussed and why were those important? Though the overall objective was to further strengthen the Japan-US relationship, each of the issues that figured in the discussion – China’s assertiveness and expansionist stance in regional issues, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programmes, Taiwan’s security, climate change and dealing with the Covid-19, and further strengthening of the Quad initiative – prominently figured in the discussions. There was a subtle hint that if Japan does not develop its own defence forces into a serious force to be able to operate with the US and other Quad members then defending the Senkaku and beyond from the Chinese threat could be difficult. The message was loud and clear that there is no departure to any of the policy of his predecessor Abe Shinzo. On this Japan and the US are on the same page.

Bound by a security alliance relationship with the US, Japan needs reassurances time and again that the US ought to be on the hook to defend Japan whenever the need arises. Any weakening of this possibility could trigger domestic debate in Japan on having the domestic capability, including withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and revisiting the nuclear option. No one would rejoice at such a possibility for the fear of a domino effect as South Korea and Taiwan would inevitably follow suit. Washington is seized of such a possibility and extremely unlikely to weaken the security relationship both with Japan and South Korea. Seen from this perspective, Suga’s meeting with Biden assumes significance.

Prior to Suga’s US sojourn, Biden had dispatched his Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defence Austin to reassure Japan that the US would stand by Japan on all security matters. But Suga wanted to be reassured himself from Biden. Writing for Japan Forward, Grant Newsham compares Suga with a girl asking her lover every five minutes if he loves her, implying thereby that she is not sure of her lover’s sincerity and commitment.1 That has to be unconditional and Suga was keen to hear that directly from Biden.

For Japan, China is the main concern. For some time now, Chinese naval, coast guards and maritime militia have been making continuous incursions around Japan’s Senkaku Islands and Japan finds difficult to contain such Chinese adventures. What unnerves Japan is that China recently passed a law authorizing the China Coast Guard to shoot at ships trespassing in Chinese waters. And since China claims the Senkaku and surrounding seas as its own territory, by making frequent incursions into the waters near the Senkaku islands, it wants to send a message to Japan. Though Beijing has refrained so far from embarking on any military adventure yet this does not rule out a change to the existing situation if China decides to become more aggressive. It transpires that if Japan was not bound by the security alliance relationship with the US, China would likely have already moved to occupy the Senkakus and would have tested the Japanese, which is why Japan wants reassurances from the US that it would stand by it to defend if the need so arises.

Like other Quad members, Japan and the US define their relationship based on shared mutual values and that underpins regional security. However, it remains to be seen if the level of China’s assertiveness on regional issues stemming from its military and economic strength can be deterred from any US assurances. However, if Beijing crosses any red lines either in the Taiwan Strait, Senkakus or South China Sea, things could turn ugly. If Beijing overrides such considerations, it would be an adventure at its own peril.

Japan is unlikely to be satisfied with only US assurance of support. It wants to strengthen its own military capabilities to add to the strength of the US forces stationed in many Japanese bases. Even on this, Japan is under pressure from the US to enhance the security burden by paying more but there is reluctance on the part of Japan. Moreover the economy has been contracting and has already lost over three decades of economic growth. The forthcoming Olympics (still could be cancelled) and the pandemic have put more strain on the economy.

Because of China flexing its military muscle, people in Asia are not living in an ideal world; there is perpetual threat to disturb the existing equilibrium. Besides deepening its ties with the US, Japan needs to address the issues of inadequate funding and recruiting shortfalls to making its Self Defense Forces (SDF) capable of fighting a war on its own.2 Japan also needs to consider seriously deepening defence ties with Taiwan and dispatch Japan Coast Guard liaison officers to Taiwan to work in tandem with Taiwanese forces. Then, the Quad’s role deserves to be expanded to make it a net security provider for the Indo-Pacific region. This could probably be done by establishing a standing joint Japan-US operational headquarters in Japan by co-opting the other two Quad members –India and Australia.

As regards the Senkaku issue, Japan expects the US to publicly state that the islands are Japanese territory. The US did hold such a position until 1972 when it went “non-committal” on the sovereignty issue as a favour to China. The vague US position emboldened Beijing to assert its claims on the Senkakus administered by Japan so far. In order to demonstrate its leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region, the rest of Asia expects the US to reaffirm that the Senkakus and the surrounding waters belong to Japan. If China chooses ever to seize it by force, its military adventurism could turn the situation messy. Under the circumstance, Japan need not loosen its guard and strengthen its own capability and turn the SDF into a capable fighting force.

Though China topped the agenda, in a joint statement, both Biden and Suga addressed an array of geopolitical issues, including “the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait”, which Beijing saw as a slap at its increased military pressure on the Chinese-claimed, self-ruled island. Both also discussed Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong and its crackdown on Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. Washington claims that Beijing is perpetuating genocide against Muslim Uighurs. China denies abuses.

China lost no time and its embassy in Washington reacted almost immediately remarking that Beijing was “resolutely opposed” to the joint statement, and that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang were China’s internal affairs.3 The mention of Taiwan in the joint statement assumes significance as the Suga-Biden summit happened days after China sent 25 aircraft, including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers, near Taiwan to intimidate the island it considers a wayward province and threatens to integrate by use of force. This was for the first time Taiwan figured in the Japan-US joint statement since 1969 talks between Richard Nixon and Eisaku Sato before Tokyo normalised ties with Beijing. In view of deep economic ties with China, Japan had been cautious in raising sensitive issues in bilateral talks with the US and in order to balance its security concerns with China. Suga is aware that China’s disputed claims to Taiwan make it a potential flashpoint and therefore urged Beijing to peacefully resolve the dispute.4 The mention of Taiwan in the joint statement as a show of support pleased Taiwan. Going further, Taiwan called on Beijing to act responsibly.

In order to expand the scope of bilateral cooperation, Suga and Biden also decided to invest together in areas such as 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genomics and semiconductor supply chains. Both sides also committed $4.5 billion (US $2.5 bn and Japan $2 bn) together to strengthen digital competitiveness including in 5G and beyond 5G networks.

Biden’s stance was a quiet reversal of Trump’s policies which was perceived to have undermined and weakened alliance relationship and at times chastising allies in Asia and raising funding issue for US troops in Japan and South Korea and questioned the value of bedrock military alliances. Having met Suga, Biden is scheduled to have a summit with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in in May. The possibility of expanding Quad by embracing South Korea and possibly Vietnam subsequently could be on the agenda for Biden-Moon summit so that the looming threat from China and its friend North Korea could be collectively addressed.

From Biden’s policy announcements to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, it transpires that his administration’s focus hereafter would be more on managing US policies towards China and the Indo-Pacific in which the alliance relationships in East Asia gets primacy of place. On his part, Suga did not feel deterred from the warning by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to his Japanese counterpart prior to Suga’s departure to the US that Japan-China relations need not “get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries

Endnotes
  1. Grant Newsham, “Mr. Suga goes to Washington”, Japan Forward, 14 April 2021, https://japan-forward.com/mr-suga-goes-to-washington/
  2. “To Deter China, Japan Must Bolster U.S. Alliance, Defense Capability”, Japan Forward, editorial, 22 March 2021, https://japan-forward.com/editorial-to-deter-china-japan-must-bolster-u-s-alliance-defense-capability/
  3. “Biden and Suga project unity against China’s assertiveness”, The Asahi Shimbun, 17 April 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14332451
  4. “Japan, U.S. showcase alliance, resolve in dealing with China”, The Asahi Shimbun, 17 April 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14332453

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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