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U.S. has high expectations for Japan in security

On March 12, the Japanese government announced that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will visit the U.S. in the first half of April thereby becoming the first world leader to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden in person. At a liaison meeting of the government and ruling parties, Suga stated that he hopes to take the opportunity [afforded by the U.S. visit] to further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.


Suga will seek to confirm bilateral cooperation and coordination regarding various issues including the novel coronavirus pandemic, global warming, China, and the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. The two leaders are expected to discuss China’s attempts to change the status quo in the South and East China Seas, the enactment of the Chinese coast guard law, which allows the use of weapons, and human rights issues in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.


Suga to become the first world leader to meet with Biden in person


At a press conference on March 12, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato stressed that the meeting between the Japanese and U.S. leaders has special significance amid the rapidly changing international environment. Due to the pandemic, Suga will travel with a limited number of officials, 80 to 90 people, who will be fully vaccinated before the trip.


Suga and Biden spoke on the phone in November last year following the U.S. presidential election and in January this year. During the January call, the two confirmed they would have an in-person meeting in the U.S. at an early date.


U.S. hopes to strengthen the alliance with Japan to counter China

By Koji Sugimoto and Kei Ishinabe


At the liaison meeting, Suga emphasized the fact that he will be the first foreign leader for the U.S. President to meet in person. Japan is also the first to host a joint visit by the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense. This reflects the importance the U.S. attaches to its alliance with Japan and suggests an increased role for Japan in security in the future.


Suga became prime minister in September 2020, and Biden took office in January 2021. Some expressed concern that the leadership change would have a negative impact on the Japan-U.S. relationship, as Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump — and their strong personal connection — exited center stage. Suga’s upcoming trip proves that the change in leadership in the two countries will not affect the close bilateral bond the nations share.


What changed was the two countries’ style of diplomacy. Unlike Abe and Trump’s “top-down” style, Suga and Biden have taken a “bottom-up” approach, where input and initiatives from the Foreign Ministry and the State Department provide the foundation for the bilateral dialogue. Sources in both countries welcome the shift, saying that it “has increased dialogue in every field.”


Detailed discussions between officials in charge were likely responsible for securing Suga’s early visit to the U.S. Suga had hoped to meet with Biden in February, but the U.S. side was reluctant due to concerns about COVID-19 and President Biden’s age. Even after Japan learned that the U.S. responded to the Europeans in the same manner, the Japanese government continued to seek an early visit for the Japanese Prime Minister.


The departure from a diplomacy shaped by the top leaders’ initiatives and the return to a traditional government-to-government negotiation style mean Japan has more agenda items to tackle. The two countries’ officials are in agreement that China’s military rise necessitates reviewing the capabilities and the current division of the labor between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military.


Security was not given sufficient attention during the Trump administration, which emphasized the trade deficit and host nation support in the bilateral relationship. During that period, China enhanced its long-range missile capabilities, improved its naval vessels, and strengthened its ability to keep the U.S. military from approaching the Chinese mainland. The Trump administration held out the possibility it would use force to prevent North Korea from developing inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but the administration essentially turned a blind eye to the North’s development of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can reach Japan.


The U.S. sees China as its most formidable competitor, and it needs to strengthen the Japan-U.S. security alliance to counter that Asian nation. This is also why the Biden administration is underscoring Japan’s importance. “Japan is in the midst of an enormous crisis,” warns a senior Japanese government official. “[Considering the threats posed by China and North Korea], we must consider all issues and options.”


Suga’s diplomatic agenda going into the U.S. visit

  • China’s expansion into the East and South China Seas
  • Intrusion by China Coast Guard ships into Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands and China’s implementation of a new coast guard law
  • China’s suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
  • Restructuring of the supply chains of rare earth materials, semiconductors, and other items for which Japan is dependent on China
  • Climate change countermeasures
  • COVID-19 countermeasures, including vaccine support for developing countries
  • North Korean nuclear and missile development and the abduction issue
  • Myanmar situation under the military junta
  • Hosting of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games


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