US President Joe Biden and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will meet in Washington on April 16. Suga will be the first foreign leader received at the White House by Biden. Photos: AFP/Mandel Ngan and Yuichi Yamazaki

Ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s three-day visit to Washington now scheduled for April 16, geopolitical tensions in Asia are reaching a fever pitch. Both the US and China have deployed aircraft carriers to the Western Pacific for cross-sea drills amid a deepening naval stand-off between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.

For its part, Japan deployed its own destroyer to monitor China’s activities in the East China Sea. 

A key US ally and longtime economic powerhouse, Japan is fast becoming a new fulcrum of Asian geopolitics. Alarmed by Beijing’s rising assertiveness, the northeast Asian power is flexing its naval muscles in adjacent waters and mobilizing a robust global alliance to keep China’s ambitions in check. 

During his visit to Washington, Suga is expected to coordinate the establishment of a joint initiative to combat China’s growing economic influence in the region. The Japanese leader is also pushing for expanded security cooperation with like-minded Indo-Pacific powers, from the US and India to Australia and Germany. 

Historical rivals Japan and China kicked off the week with diplomatic fireworks. During their phone conversation, reportedly at the behest of Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi against joining Western sanctions over alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang. 

In recent weeks, the US, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom have all imposed sanctions on China amid allegations of widespread human rights violations against the Muslim Uighur minority. 

A complex that includes what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained on the outskirts of Hotan, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

Heated discussion

The Chinese diplomat warned Tokyo to be “objective and rational” in its policy and reiterated the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship, as Japan considers potential sanctions similar to its Western allies. 

According to Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s “goal is to improve the human rights situation” and that “each country will decide from its own point of view” if sanctions and punitive measures are “effective.”

The heated discussions over potential Japanese sanctions coincided with rising maritime tensions in East Asia. Over the past week, the US deployed an aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt to the South China Sea via the Strait of Malacca, while US’ John S. McCain guided-missile destroyer conducted a “routine” transit through the Taiwan Strait.

The USS Mustin, a guided-missile destroyer, in turn, reportedly passed through the East China Sea and edged close to China’s Yangtze River over the weekend.  

While the US’s naval forces converged across China’s adjacent waters, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed aircraft carrier Liaoning through the Miyako Strait off southwestern Japan for “scheduled exercises” in the Western Pacific.

Crucially, the Chinese drills were near Taiwan to “test the effectiveness of troop training, and to improve the capacity to safeguard the country’s sovereignty, safety and development interests.” 

In a show force, the Chinese aircraft carrier was accompanied by the PLAN’s state-of-the-art Renhai class Type 055 destroyer, a massive warship with a displacement of more than 12,000 tons, which makes it the world’s second-most powerful destroyer after the US Navy’s Zumwalt class DDG-1000 warship. 

Japan beefs up

At about 180 meters, or 590 feet, long and 22 meters wide, the new Chinese destroyer is capable of launching missiles against targets under and above the sea as well as on land and dwarfs China’s earlier Type 052D Luyang III class destroyers. 

Perturbed by China’s muscle flexing off its southern coast, Japan responded in kind by deploying destroyer JS Suzutsuki, which was accompanied by a P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and a P-3C anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft.

Japan is particularly troubled by China’s expanding naval and paramilitary deployments close to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands near Okinawa, which are claimed by China. 

Throughout the first months of the year, Chinese vessels reportedly intruded into Japanese-claimed waters in the area on at least 11 occasions. 

To beef up its presence in the contested area, Japan is set to deploy the first squadron of its much-vaunted F-35B fighters to Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force’s Nyutabaru Air Base in southern Miyazaki Prefecture. 

Japan seems particularly encouraged by growing US assurance of support in any event of a conflict with China in the East China Sea. During their conversations earlier this year, US President Joe Biden told his Japanese counterpart that US-Japan mutual defense treaty applies to the Senkaky/Diaoyo islands, which have been under direct Japanese administrative control over the past half-century. 

“The leaders … discussed the United States’ unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan under Article 5 of our security treaty, which includes the Senkaku,” the White House said

“President Biden reaffirmed to the prime minister his commitment to provide extended deterrence to Japan,” the Biden administration added, signaling potential direct intervention by the US Navy’s 7th Fleet stationed in Japan’s Yokosuka Naval Base in an event of a contingency. 

US aircraft refuel during a friendship event at Iwakuni Air Base in Iwakuni City, Japan, on May 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

US backing

 “President-elect Biden gave me a commitment that Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands,” confirmed Japanese Prime Minister Suga

According to Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty, “each party recognizes that an armed attack against either party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.” 

Separately, Article I of the treaty makes it clear that “Japan grants, and the United States of America accepts, the right … to dispose United States’ land, air and sea forces in and about Japan.  Such forces may be utilized to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East and to the security of Japan against armed attack from without.”

During his upcoming summit with Biden, Suga is expected to push for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” alternative to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” focusing on both hard and soft infrastructure support to key regional states.

Japan is set to conduct the first “two plus two” meetings between Japanese and German defense and foreign ministers this month, to be followed by the first joint drills in Asia with the European powerhouse later this year. 

Suga is expected to visit India and the Philippines, two key partners at loggerheads with China over territorial disputes, around late April to May, and is also pushing for the first in-person summit among Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) leaders at a Group of Seven summit in the UK in June.  

For the first time since the end of World War II, Japan has once again become a fulcrum of Asian geopolitics.