A shopper walks past a large protest banner at the Silk Street market, which is famous for selling counterfeit designer brand goods, as anti-Japanese protests continued in Beijing over the Diaoyu islands, known as the Senkaku islands in Japanese, on September 17, 2012. Asia's two largest economies remain at loggerheads over the archipelago in the East China Sea administered by Tokyo and claimed by China. Photo: AFP / Mark Ralston

President Joe Biden reaffirmed Wednesday the United States’ commitment to defend Japan in his first phone call with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, striking a note of reassurance after the Trump era.

During Donald Trump’s administration, America’s Asian allies often questioned whether Washington would uphold long-standing promises to defend them in the event of attack.

Trump had publicly mulled withdrawing troops from Japan and South Korea, where more than 20,000 US military personnel are stationed to deter any North Korean military action.

Biden and Suga both urged denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula in the call – their first since Biden took office last week.

They discussed Washington’s “unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan under Article 5 of our security treaty,” the White House said, and Biden reaffirmed “his commitment to provide extended deterrence to Japan.”

The US backing, the statement said, “includes the Senkaku Islands” – an area claimed both by Japan and China, which calls the islands the Diaoyus.

America’s clear mention of the Senkakus, an uninhabited island chain which has been a potential flashpoint for decades, is likely to cause anger in Beijing.

US overextended?

On the US side there’s debate whether the United States is overly extended in its commitments in both the South and East China Seas, where China possesses strategic advantages such as nearness to home.

“Mentioning the Senkakus is all about reassuring Japan,” Van Jackson, who served as a US Defense Department official under President Barack Obama, told Asia Times Thursday. “Is that advisable?  It’s not a big deal either way because it antagonizes Beijing to the same degree it reassures Tokyo – not much. 

“It raises a larger unsettled issue though. One of the great errors of the Obama [administration] was creating deterrence traps for itself – doing provocative military signaling and such that had no realistic goal of deterring China or North Korea but instead aimed at mollifying ally abandonment fears.”

He said he was referring broadly to US Indo-Pacific political/military policy: “Australia, the Quad [US, Japan, Australia, India] and a lot of US military posturing. The very act of reassuring in a militarized way created precedents and new benchmarks for what you’re supposed to do to reassure.

“The result was more nuclear umbrella talks, more military exercises, more freedom of navigation operations, and more nuclear-capable bomber deployments,” said Jackson, currently a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. “For what? Allies were still angst-ridden at the end of the day, and there’s no evidence that these things affected Chinese or North Korean calculations, yet they led us to dig ever deeper holes.”

“When military signaling is a response to strategic emasculation,” Jackson said, it’s all kinds of wrongheaded – amoral, bad strategy.” Besides, he added, “it’s all dangerously feckless when you let China be your main creditor, or the only reason you can keep the lights on at your universities.”

Jackson concluded: “The deterrent trap problem is clearly not on Biden’s radar but it needs to be.”

‘Engage with world again’

Besides Japan’s security guarantee, Biden and Suga on their call also “discussed regional security issues, including China and North Korea,” the official statement said. “They together affirmed the necessity of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Suga agreed to visit the United States as soon as possible, telling reporters in Japan after the call that he would plan the trip “while watching the coronavirus infection situation.”

The Jiji Press agency said the two leaders did not discuss the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were postponed until this year and could again be threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke Wednesday with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and stressed Biden’s pledge to “engage with the world again,” a State Department spokesman said.

While Biden is making a clean break from many of Trump’s policies, his team has pledged continuity on some diplomatic issues including taking a hard line on China.

The new US leader sat for decades on the Senate foreign relations committee – traveling around the world meeting foreign leaders – before serving as vice president to Barack Obama, who promoted America as a “Pacific power.”

Trump during his time in power rattled Asian allies by picking trade fights with China, embracing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and openly floating the possibility of withdrawing troops from the region.

Suga spoke to Biden in November after the US election and gave a stark warning that the security situation was “increasingly severe” in the Asia-Pacific region.

– AFP contributed to this story