By arranging to meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Washington, DC, in his first in-person summit, United States President Joe Biden appears to be sending a message: Asia, and in particular Japan, is at the heart of US foreign policy.
While issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and North Korea are expected to be high on their list of talking points, another nation, though not physically present at Friday’s meeting, is likely to be top of mind: China. Beijing has already made its displeasure about the summit known.
The US and Japan share many of the same grievances concerning China. They include Beijing’s abuse of the Uighur community in the far-western region of Xinjiang, its activities in the East China Sea and the use of advanced technology to gain an economic edge over its competitors.
While both countries have plenty to lose by being too aggressive in dealing with China, Japan is being forced to walk a particularly fine line compared with the US.
In trade at least, China is far more important to Japan than it is to the US.
China became Japan’s top export destination in 2020, leapfrogging the US and consuming more than 22 percent of Japanese goods sold overseas, according to Japan’s Ministry of Finance data. For the US, China was its third-largest export destination, accounting for 8.7 percent of its total goods exports, after Canada and Mexico, US Census Bureau figures show.
Meanwhile, Japan wants to ensure that it remains aligned with the US, its only military ally, as disputes between Tokyo and Beijing over islands in the East China Sea rumble on.
After years of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to get friends and foes alike to reduce their trade surpluses with the US, Biden is taking a different approach. He has been clear even while campaigning ahead of last year’s election that he would seek to work together with the US’s traditional allies – including Japan – in confronting China on issues such as trade imbalances and its alleged abuse of intellectual property and human rights, which Beijing denies.
The groundwork for Friday’s meeting has included a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Tokyo last month, their first overseas trip, another signal of the importance of Japan to the US’s strategic goals.
The two sides are also setting up working groups to discuss emerging technologies, climate change, COVID-19 measures and bilateral economic cooperation, The Japan Times reported last month quoting Japanese government sources.
But it is the various facets of their relationship with China that are likely to dominate the meeting.
Suga and Biden are expected to make a joint statement expressing their deep concern about human rights violations in China, according to The Japan Times’s sources.
Biden has been scaling up the pressure on Beijing for its use of what it calls re-education centres in Xinjiang. The United Nations and rights groups say they are internment camps used to quell dissent. Beijing has also been accused of using the camps as factories for forced labour to make clothes for export to prominent Western retail chains.
The US, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union imposed coordinated sanctions last month on current and former Chinese officials over the alleged abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. That action followed statements by the US, Canada and the Netherlands saying China’s treatment of the Uighurs amounts to genocide. Washington placed an import ban on all cotton and tomato products from the region.
China responded with targeted measures of its own.
Japan has expressed its concerns about the Uighurs, but it has so far not joined in with the Western sanctions against Beijing, and it lacks the legal framework for it to do so. The pressure on Suga to push for changes that would allow for sanctions – not something that is universally supported by Japanese policymakers – could be ratcheted up in his meetings with Biden.
“Japan is the only G7 country not taking part in the sanctions,” Gen Nakatani, a former Japanese defence minister, who co-chairs a cross-party group of policymakers on China policy, told the Bloomberg news agency. “It’s shameful for Japan to be seen as a country that’s pretending not to know what’s going on.”
Before the summit, China has turned up the heat on Japan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi earlier this month that their two countries should ensure their relations “do not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries”, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.
It quoted Wang as saying “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”.
Some Japanese companies have been caught in the diplomatic crossfire. Shares of Ryohin Keikaku Co, the operator of the Muji chain of clothing and furniture stores, tumbled last month after it issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Several Chinese celebrities cut ties with Uniqlo, the fashion brand owned by Fast Retailing Co.
Another important issue concerning the US and Japan is how to deal with China’s growing technological might.
China has effectively cornered the global supply of components for the latest fifth-generation (5G) mobile telecommunications networks. Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE produce cutting-edge equipment that undercuts competitors such as Finland’s Nokia on price, promising high-speed broadband access to even the poorest corners of the world.
In 2019, the US placed Huawei on the Department of Commerce’s so-called entity list, saying it poses a national security threat, accusations the company denies.
Biden and Suga are reportedly planning to discuss ways of using their countries’ know-how – the US and Japan are two of the most technologically advanced nations – to look beyond 5G at so-called sixth-generation mobile technologies.
“There are many ways that policymakers can take a coordinated, measured, and proactive approach to ensuring network security and commercial competitiveness in the decades to come, and the work will begin in earnest after the leaders’ meeting is concluded,” James L Schoff and Joshua Levy, fellows at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in The Diplomat earlier this week.
When the chips are down
Another area the two technology giants are likely to discuss is semiconductors.
A global shortage of chips – in particular those used in the automotive sector that is crucial to both the Japanese and US economies – is forcing their leaders to consider how to secure supplies of these crucial components.
The two countries have set up a working group to determine how to divide up tasks such as research, development and production, according to the Nikkei newspaper.
“Japanese firms play an important role in specific nodes of the semiconductor supply chain and other advanced manufacturing,” writes Mireya Solis, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
“Developing a trusted supplier network, diversifying sources of supply, and nurturing complementarities between American and Japanese companies in high-tech supply chains are fruitful areas of future cooperation.”
Here too, China is playing a part in driving Japan and the US to diversify their chip supplies. One of the world’s largest chip suppliers is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. But tensions between Beijing and Taiwan – which China considers a renegade province – are on the rise.
The US’s decision to send a group of former officials to Taiwan this week has added more fuel to an already combustible situation. That move followed a flight of 25 Chinese military aircraft into Taiwanese airspace on Monday.
In a historic move, Biden and Suga are expected to make a joint statement about Taiwan, according to media reports. The last time US and Japanese leaders did so was in 1969, when Japan’s prime minister at the time, Eisaku Sato, and US President Richard Nixon stressed the importance of maintaining peace and security in the “Taiwan area”. That was before Tokyo normalised ties with Beijing in 1972.
Away from talking points linked with China, the issue of trade between Japan and the US could also crop up.
Japan and the US signed a limited trade agreement in 2019 under their leaders’ preceding administrations. That took some of the sting out of Trump’s decision to impose punitive tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminium the year before.
But the 2019 agreement does not cover the automotive sector, the source of most of the $55.4bn trade deficit with Japan in 2020. Moving the trade deal towards including cars in it could be on the summit’s agenda.
As Suga takes his first big step on the geopolitical stage, clinching an agreement that enhances Japan’s trading relationship with the US would be an important tangible victory for him as he seeks to cement his grip on power after taking over from Shinzo Abe last September.
Winning the much larger prize of containing China while maintaining a profitable economic relationship with it will require some deft manoeuvring and nothing less than the help of the world’s top superpower.