Japan and the United States held a 2-plus-2 meeting of their foreign and defense chiefs in central Tokyo. It was the first such meeting since the change of leadership in the two countries—from Shinzo Abe to Yoshihide Suga in Japan, and from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the U.S.
The two allies must correct distortions in the alliance created by the pressure the former Trump administration placed on Japan to purchase massive amounts of U.S.-manufactured defense equipment under the administration’s “America First” policy. The two nations must build a cooperative relationship which can serve as the foundation of regional and global stability.
The biggest challenge is handling China, which has developed significantly in terms of both its military and its economy.
The two nations’ firm stance against China was made clear in the joint statement released after the meeting. The four ministers criticized China by name, stating that its actions go against the existing international order, and they expressed “serious concerns” about China’s Coast Guard Law, which enhanced the powers of China Coast Guard vessels and allowed them to use weapons. It was also confirmed that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which stipulates the U.S. obligation to defend Japan, applies to the Senkaku Islands.
There is no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party’s high-handed methods are problematic. China’s authoritarian stance is displayed not only in China’s unilateral expansion into the South and East China Seas, but also in its suppression of democratic movements in Hong Kong and the oppression of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and elsewhere. The joint statement is right to express “serious concerns” over those issues and to emphasize the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
On the other hand, both Japan and the U.S. are deeply interdependent on China in the economic sector among others. Cooperation with Beijing is indispensable for tackling such global challenges as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Wisdom must be exercised in discerning how to harness the Japan-U.S. alliance as a basis for efforts to coexist with China in a sound manner while preventing tensions between Washington and Beijing from escalating.
The joint statement promotes a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and reaffirms that the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance comes from the nations’ shared values, amplified by their strong network of ties with “like-minded democracies.” If that is the case, Japan and the U.S. each have issues that need to be addressed.
A pressing issue for Japan is improving its relations with South Korea. Coordination among Japan, the U.S., and South Korea is indispensable in formulating and implementing North Korea policy. In addition, Japan should urge the U.S. to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, from which the nation withdrew under its former president.
What is worrisome is that the joint statement clearly states that: “Japan resolved to enhance its capabilities to bolster national defense and further strengthen the alliance.” If Japan were to play a bigger military role, it could cause the further deterioration of Japan’s fiscal and economic position, which is already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, there is no mention of revising the Status of Forces Agreement, despite the claim made once again in the joint statement that transferring the U.S. Futenma airfield to Henoko is the “only solution.” This approach will not help in gaining the broad understanding of the Japanese people for “strengthening the alliance.” Needless to say, Japan must not be dragged into the U.S.’s China strategy and be put on the front lines of a U.S.-China military confrontation.