In spite of all the friction between two strong allies over the last 50 years, many Japanese Prime Ministers have made sure that their first overseas trip is almost certainly to Washington, DC. In fact reports had even surfaced that Yoshihide Suga had at one time expressed the hope that he would be in the United States in February 2021, taking the Biden administration by surprise, as they wanted no personal visits of a foreign leader until such time there was a better handle on the coronavirus. After tossing around a few dates, the stage is finally set for the Biden-Suga summit on April 16, some three months after Biden came to the White House.
From a Japanese perspective, a lot rides on how Prime Minister Suga is going to make out of his meeting with the new dispensation in Washington. The visiting PM is not exactly a powerhouse in the Liberal Democratic Party and needs to come away with something that boosts his domestic standing . In media circles the question is whether Suga will return with “big” or “certain” achievements, with few observers willing to prioritise what could be considered under each category. But the summit is clearly being seen much beyond the bilateral given the scope of challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
A lot of focus is naturally on the Biden administration, more specifically on the president himself, on how the critical relationship is going to be re-defined. To some extent President Donald Trump, his good relationship with Shinzo Abe apart, pushed Tokyo on the economic aspects by threatening to impose tariffs as a way of restricting Japanese exports and at the same time pressuring the Asian ally to buy more American products. In fact in the last several decades the two countries have sparred over textiles, steel, automobiles, semiconductors and agricultural products. And if a $18 billion deficit in the 1980s bothered Washington, the fact that Japan’s surplus had hit US$ 69 billions in 2019 was certainly not a comforting thought to the Trump administration. And all this is not to forget the hoopla over the “free ride” on national security, which was not exactly the exclusive preserve of the Trump team.
The economic irritant will certainly not go away with any one meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Suga; but more importantly it remains to be seen the extent to which Suga is going to be accommodative to Washington’s seemingly tough posturing against China that is not just confined to the realities of the Indo-Pacific but also some loud talking on issues of human rights especially pertaining to the treatment of Uighur Muslims. The hardline approach was evident in the shouting match at a meeting in Alaska last month when officials of the two sides accused each other of human rights violations. When the European Union slapped sanctions, Japan seemed to be the odd nation out in the Group of Seven not to impose punitive measures over human rights issues.
If there is one thing common between Washington and Tokyo it is that both see the urgency of taking steps to deal with increased Chinese belligerence in the East and South China seas, with Suga especially concerned over naval incursions near Senkaku Islands. In fact taking note of the Biden-Suga summit and what could be in store, China’s foreign ministry cautioned Tokyo against getting involved in “ so called confrontations between major countries”.
“China hopes that Japan, as an independent country, will look at China’s development in an objective and rational way, instead of being misled by some countries holding biased view against China”, Foreign Minister Wang Yi is reported to have told his Japanese counterpart. In bringing about the issue of China’s development, the top official has also reminded Japan of its economic stakes: that the value of its exports was $141 billion and imports $164 billion in 2020. In fact the Biden administration has a bigger economic problem with China: the trade deficit of the United States with the Communist giant was $346 billion, something Trump thought he could handle by imposing tariffs.
Suga has another issue pertaining to his neighbourhood that he would have to be careful in dealing with — North Korea, which again involves Beijing. Regionally Pyongyang has become a big headache for the reason that besides rhetoric, Kim Jong-un has been occasionally firing off missiles that land in the Sea of Japan; and Washington is yet to indicate its new policy, if any, towards North Korea. And from a domestic perspective, Suga will have to get some signal on Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Officially, according to Japan, the number is 17 with five being repatriated; but according to Pyongyang, eight have died and four have never entered the country. The most Washington can do in this regard is to make this issue is a decent priority in any task list on Pyongyang.
In ways more than one, the April 16 summit could be a defining moment in American-Japanese relations but much will depend on how carefully the Biden administration will want to partner with Japan for a better and more prosperous Indo-Pacific. Looking at the region through a prism of alliances to counter China may not provide a balanced approach. Biden and his top national security advisors have said all the necessary tough words against Beijing but the reality is that China is an advanced economic power, a strategic competitor to the United States, but a country that needs to be impressed upon to play by international law and rules of the game. That calls for a more prudent management by broad-based consultation, not through confrontation.
Japan, or for that matter anyone in the Indo-Pacific, will be highly reluctant to be drawn into any high-stakes gamble to “contain” China by way of upping the ante in the East and South China Seas, drawing the line for Kim Jong-un or unnecessary provocations in the Straits of Taiwan that Taipei itself would be quite uneasy about. Economically, Japan will shudder at the prospect of being shut out or downsized in the China market. Worse, prodding Suga into a more hawkish posture might only fan the flames of the extreme rightists in that country who are waiting anxiously to dump the pacifist constitution and embark on a course that made several countries nervous and anxious in East and South East Asia not too long ago.
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.