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Editorial: Japan-U.S. alliance remains strong, but challenges lie ahead

Recent diplomacy should end fears in Japan about the country’s relationship with the United States following Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Last week’s visit to Washington by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga confirms that the partnership remains the cornerstone of security in a region that remains a top U.S. priority.


That success is a marker, however, and not a resting point. Japan must continue to build on those accomplishments, widening and adapting the partnership to do still more for Indo-Pacific peace, stability and prosperity.


Japan enjoyed a privileged place in U.S. foreign policy during the last four years, in part a product of a personal relationship between Trump and former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, considered “the Trump whisperer” for his ability to stay on the good side of the mercurial U.S. president. New leadership in both the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House threatened those relations.


A second reason for the good relationship was an alignment in world views among the two governments. Both were intensely skeptical of Chinese intentions and viewed the Beijing government as a revisionist power that sought to change rules and institutions to its advantage. There was fear that the Biden administration would retreat from Trump’s hard-line approach toward China and instead seek to cooperate with Beijing — at Tokyo’s expense.


Instead, Biden has proven to be as tough-minded about China as his predecessor. The U.S. continues to view Beijing as a competitor across multiple domains. The new U.S. administration has prioritized the Indo-Pacific in its pronouncements and its policy, sending Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Northeast Asia for their inaugural overseas trips in those offices. They also attended the Security Consultative Committee (SCC or “two-plus-two”) meeting where they held talks with counterparts Toshimitsu Motegi and Nobuo Kishi, ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, respectively, displaying a partnership and unity of purpose that future meetings may find hard to match.


The decision to host Suga as the first foreign guest of the new administration is more proof that Biden’s vision aligns with that of Japan. The reported rapport that the two men enjoyed — to be expected given the emphasis that they put on retail politics and personal relationships — will also serve the bilateral relationship well. Official documents from that meeting, and the SCC, confirmed a Japan-U.S. partnership that is vibrant and forward looking, a continued U.S. commitment to Japan’s defense and the priority that Biden gives to Japan.


Those meetings, and the inaugural Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit, held just before the SCC, are also noteworthy for the expansive view of security that they embraced and the measures adopted to promote that vision. The “Quad” session in particular highlighted the growing importance of economic statecraft in addressing regional security in general and the China challenge in particular.


Three recurring themes are vaccine diplomacy, climate change and dealing with new technologies and the related issue of supply chain security. All three are pressing concerns and success in the first, in particular, will go a long way toward helping restore normalcy and the resumption of growth and, consequently, winning hearts and minds throughout the Indo-Pacific. This emphasis on economics is well aligned with Japan’s interests and ability to contribute to regional public goods and the alliance.


Challenges remain. Tokyo and Washington must resolve several alliance issues: the replacement for the Aegis Ashore missile defense system, canceled last year; the ballooning cost of the F15 fighter jet upgrade; a long-term host nation support deal; the enduring problem of the Futenma relocation in Okinawa; and slowly rising concern in Japan about shifts in U.S. nuclear doctrine.


While recent statements have underscored the U.S. willingness to use all its capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend Japan, the Biden administration is debating its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a document released by every administration. The new leadership in Washington is reportedly considering a “sole purpose” doctrine policy that could limit the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. We urge the two governments to consult to assess the meaning, significance and impact of any such shift. Previous U.S. administrations have done just that.


And, for all the agreement about China, there remains the fundamental challenge of reconciling approaches to that country, even for allies. There are important differences in thinking about the appropriate pressure to bring to bear against China, the instruments to do so and the ways in which that is done. A recurring issue is how public and pointed to make disagreements between our thinking and that of Beijing. Japanese governments have preferred to argue in private and to create space for diplomacy, a view that sometimes conflicts with that of U.S. or other Western governments, which prefer public pressure campaigns.


Among those differences, few are as glaring as Taiwan. There has been considerable attention to the seeming gap between Tokyo and Washington on this issue. With tensions rising in the Taiwan Strait, the declaration by Suga and Biden that called for “peace and stability” across the Strait is common sense, but the first such utterance in a joint statement by the allies in half a century infuriated Beijing, which considers the island a domestic issue of no concern to other governments.


Successive Japanese governments have refused for a variety of reasons to state specifically what they would do in a military contingency — Suga was no exception last week when pressed in the Diet — but that does not mean that our two governments have not discussed this. Looking at recent developments, it seems clear that there is far more that unites Japan and its ally than divides them. This is as it should be — and helps ensure that they will work out any disagreements that might emerge.


The Japan Times Editorial Board

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