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In competition with archrival China, U.S. has great expectations for Japan

By Naoki Kikuchi and Ayumi Shintaku, staff writers


At the core of Biden administration’s global strategy is close cooperation with allies, and U.S. expectations for Japan are particularly high as an economic and military power in East Asia. Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Japan in their first overseas trip for bilateral 2-plus-2 talks. The secretaries expressed serious concern about China’s Coast Guard Law and clarified that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands, demonstrating, to Japan’s delight, the Biden administration’s “honeymoon” with the country.


“The U.S.’s China strategy cannot exist without Japan,” says Jeffrey Hornung at the Rand Corporation, a thinktank influential in formulation of the U.S. military strategy. “A strong partnership with Japan is an imperative for the U.S.”


The U.S. is a tough negotiator, however. A person who is well versed in the bilateral relationship explains that the U.S.’s approach to the Suga-Biden summit will be: “The U.S. accommodated all of Japan’s requests in the 2-plus-2 meeting. Now, what kind of concrete support will Japan offer to support U.S. strategy on China?”


A line in the 2-plus-2 statement, “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” looms large in the minds of the Japanese officials. Concerns are rising in the U.S. over China’s growing military pressure on Taiwan, leading Adm. Philip Davidson, the commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command, to testify in Congress in March that China could take over Taiwan by force within the next six years.


Pointing to the expression “realistic exercises and training” in the 2-plus-2 statement, Hornung explains that the U.S. will clearly need Japan’s support in case of a Taiwan contingency, considering its geographic location, and that during the bilateral summit meeting, the U.S. wants to talk about a joint plan with Japan to explore what kind of contribution Japan is prepared to make. The U.S. is also hoping to obtain Japan’s permission to deploy in its territory surface-to-air intermediate-range missile bases as part of the U.S. missile defense strategy in Asia currently being contemplated as a means to counterbalance China.


Unlike former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, who emphasizes human rights issues, may pressure Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to fall in line with U.S. initiatives on those issues. The U.S. is critical of Japan for its not sanctioning China over its oppression of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Japan is the only G7 nation that hasn’t imposed sanctions on China.


Some areas of the economy that have a close bearing on economic security will be another focal point. With the possibility of contingencies in the U.S.-China relations in the future, the Biden administration will ask Japan’s cooperation in strengthening supply chains for semiconductors and other items that comprise the foundation of business and military competitiveness.


In February, President Biden called for a stable supply of strategic materials such as semiconductors and rare earth materials, pledging to enhance cooperation with allies and friendly partners so that the supply chains couldn’t be turned into tools for exerting economic pressure. In this vein, Japan and the U.S. will discuss the current reliance on Taiwan and South Korea for production of high-quality semiconductors. Both Taiwan and the ROK are at risk of facing a “China contingency.” 


The U.S. is promoting the strengthening of its semiconductor industry in particular. Japan has already fallen out of the leadership position in the industry, making it hard to predict to what extent a joint U.S.-Japan response is possible. The U.S. is currently tightening export controls on semiconductor-manufacturing machines and other advanced technology to China and requesting Japan follow suit.


Policy “gap” over China

How will Suga respond to these challenges? A Japanese government source is wary, saying, “Former President Trump wasn’t the only president who advocated ‘America First.’ The exchange at the summit may turn out to be a difficult one for Japan.”


At the top of the agenda will be a carbon-free society. The U.S. is likely to propose an ambitious goal for 2030 before the online climate summit scheduled for April. Japan pledged in 2015 to achieve a reduction in emissions of “minus 26% (compared with FY2013),” but the size of the reduction Japan can achieve remains to be seen. A senior Environment Ministry official speculated that a 40% reduction would be necessary to achieve an effective zero-carbon economy by 2050. A person close to Suga expects negative reactions from the business sector, saying, “2030 is only nine years away, and it involves businesses’ capital investment.”


Another issue will involve exports of coal-fueled power plants that emit a high level of green-house gases. A senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] is reluctant to ban the exports with China in mind. “If Japan stops exporting [coal-fueled power plants,] other countries will move in to respond to demand from developing countries.” The official speculates that the Biden administration, which drastically changed the course of U.S. environmental policy, may press Japan to accept a tough goal.


Furthermore, a “gap” could emerge between Japan and the U.S. over economic security concerning China. While a Foreign Ministry source called the 2-plus-2 statement a “perfect answer,” a source close to Suga was more cautious; there is concern that the U.S. side may ask military cooperation from Japan to prepare for a possible Taiwan contingency.


With regard to re-organizing supply chains, there is a risk that Japan becomes totally incorporated in U.S. supply chains and forced to severe ties with China. “If Japan just went along with the U.S. policy toward China without giving the matter careful thought, the Chinese might retaliate by boycotting Japanese merchandise,” a veteran LDP lawmaker said. Taiwan, which is at risk of conflict with China, currently dominates semiconductor manufacturing, and China dominates production of many rare earth materials. A senior Economic Ministry official points out that it is not possible to present an alternative plan in a short period of time.


The same is true with human rights issues. “Japan doesn’t have legislation for imposing sanctions solely on the basis of human rights abuse,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato. However, it is unclear if this explanation suffices to explain to the U.S. why Japan’s response to China’s oppression of the Uyghurs differs from Western nations’.


On March 29, Suga visited former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who conducted U.S.-Japan diplomacy using the strong personal bonds he had forged with President Trump. According to a person familiar with the meeting, when Suga asked Abe’s advice on the upcoming summit with President Biden, Abe suggested that Suga should just be himself.


People involved in bilateral issues appear tense.“The meeting itself will be conducted in a warm atmosphere. Big issues will be raised after the meeting, when each issue takes shape and the gaps between Japanese and U.S. policies emerge. Will Japan be able to clearly state what it can and cannot do? Japanese diplomacy is going to be put to the test. (Abridged)

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