President Joe Biden met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House on Friday, with Suga the first foreign leader to be hosted by the new United States administration.
The coronavirus pandemic, climate change, trade, the Tokyo Olympics, North Korea, Xinjiang and Taiwan were discussed in the talks as the Biden administration continues to pivot its foreign policy priorities towards the Indo-Pacific and US allies there.
“We committed to defending, advancing our shared values, including human rights and the rule of law,” President Biden said at a joint press conference with Suga after their meeting.
“We’re going to work together to prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century,” Biden said.
Japan and the US “discussed the free and open Indo-Pacific” and agreed “to promote the vision through concrete efforts” in cooperation with Australia, India and the 10-member ASEAN nations, Suga said at the news conference.
“We also had serious talks on China’s influence over the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and the world at large,” Suga said.
“We agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas,” he said.
“At the same time, we agreed on the necessity for each of us to engage in frank dialogue with China and in so doing, to pursue stability of international relations while upholding universal values.”
Later, at an event hosted by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, Suga said that Japan will say what is needed to be said to China and speak up on human rights, but also stressed the need to establish a stable, constructive relationship with Beijing.
“Japan’s basic policy on pending issues caused by China is to firmly assert what should be asserted and strongly request China to take specific action,” he said. “At the same time we must work to establish a stable and constructive relationship with China.”
Prior to the meeting White House officials had hoped to win a shift in rhetoric on China and Taiwan from Suga. US and Japanese leaders last referred to Taiwan in a joint statement in 1969, when Japan’s prime minister said maintenance of peace and security in the “Taiwan area” was important for its own security. That was before Tokyo normalised ties with Beijing.
The two sides “discussed the circumstances in Taiwan and Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as well,” said Suga who refrained from detailing the talks but added that “there is already an agreed recognition over the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits between Japan and the United States, which was reaffirmed on this occasion”.
The US is seeking to send a “clear signal” that Beijing’s recent actions surrounding Taiwan are “antithetical to the mission of maintaining peace and stability”, a senior Biden administration official said Thursday. China has sent warplanes into Taiwan’s airspace in recent days.
Biden and Suga were set to announce a $2bn Japanese investment in 5G telecommunications to counter the growing technological might of China’s Huawei Technologies, and discuss Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and its influence over Hong Kong, a Biden administration official said prior to the meeting.
‘A lot of these lines to carefully manage’
The visit is Suga’s first trip to the US as prime minister since taking office in September. Suga inherited a China policy that has sought to balance security concerns, particularly related to disputed islands in the East China Sea, with its deep economic ties to China and its close relationship with Washington.
There had been signs of a tentative shift in Japanese rhetoric in recent months, and more political leeway from Japan’s influential business class, Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, told Al Jazeera.
That included a statement following a March meeting of US-Japan defence and foreign ministers that named China directly – something Japan has not historically wanted to do – and decried Beijing’s “coercion and destabilising behaviour”.
In the March statement, the two sides had “underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and shared “serious concerns” about human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Still, “Japan has a lot of lines to carefully manage” during Friday’s meeting, Miller said, and Beijing will be watching.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned Washington and Tokyo to “avoid words and actions that interfere China’s internal affairs and harm China’s interests, and refrain from engaging in forming cliques against China”.
“China will make necessary responses as appropriate,” Zhao said, speaking to reporters on Friday.
‘Make sure they’re on the same page’
Miller said a main challenge for both Suga and Biden will be navigating a view of strategic competition with China that is “not completely congruent”.
“I think they need to kind of make sure they’re on the same page on these issues,” he said.
A US official who previewed the meeting on Thursday acknowledged that Washington and Tokyo have “slightly different perspectives” on China, saying the Biden administration would not “insist on Japan somehow signing on to every dimension of our approach”.
“We also recognise the deep economic and commercial ties between Japan and China and Prime Minister Suga wants to walk a careful course, and we respect that,” he added.
A Japanese foreign ministry official said last week it had not been decided whether there would be a joint statement on Taiwan sought by the White House.
Two Japanese governing party lawmakers familiar with the discussions told the Reuters news agency that officials had been divided about whether Suga should endorse a strong statement on Taiwan.
Friday’s White House meeting was intended to invigorate joint efforts between the US, Australia, India and Japan, an informal alliance known as the Quad, that the Biden administration views as a bulwark against China in the Indo-Pacific.
Other expected “deliverables” included a “broader, deeper set of engagements across technology, policy, health-related matters, climate, and also regional security,” the Biden administration official had said in advance of the meeting.