US President Joe Biden (right) and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan hold a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 16, 2021, in Washington, DC. China figured strongly in their talks. Photo: AFP / Doug Mills / Pool / Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga received renewed commitments from the United States to the two sides’ alliance and the kudos due to the first foreign leader to be greeted by US President Joe Biden in Washington on Friday.

“Freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are the universal values that link our alliance that is prevalent in the Indo-Pacific, and this is the very foundation of prosperity and stability of the region and the globe,” Suga said in remarks to Biden before their delegations sat down for talks, according to the White House. “And upon my visit to the United States, I wish to reaffirm the new and tight bond between us.”

That values-based messaging was expanded upon by Biden, who made clear where the two countries’ challenges lie.

“We committed to working together to take on the challenges from China and on issues like the East China Sea, the South China Sea, as well as North Korea, to ensure a future of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Biden said in a press conference after their  meeting, according to reports from Washington.

The two leaders confirmed their “ironclad support” for the alliance, Biden said.

“The Japan-United States alliance has been a cornerstone of peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world,” Suga added. “And it is now becoming more important than ever due to the current regional situation and the tough security environment.”  

In a broad initiative designed to challenge China’s rising economic dominance in high-technology fields, Biden also told the press conference that the United States and Japan will invest together in a range of areas including 5G mobile, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genomics and semiconductor value chains.

Also discussed were China’s pressure on Taiwan, its tightening grip on Hong Kong and its crackdown on Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur population.

Suga, speaking in a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, subsequently offered to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without pre-conditions.

It was Biden’s first summit with a foreign leader since taking office, as Suga followed the lead of predecessor Shinzo Abe – the first foreign head of state to meet Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. The meeting held related significances for both leaders.

Suga had sought assurances that the United States, socially and politically divided at home, will maintain its engagement in the Indo-Pacific at a time when a confident China is raising its economy to unprecedented heights while asserting itself more forcefully than ever on global and regional stages.

That much was assured. Though Biden faces a plethora of domestic issues, he has made clear the importance of multilateralism as he works to repair US alliances that were frayed under Trump.

He has also signaled his administration’s prioritization of the Indo-Pacific at a time when China is presenting a viable challenge to US power in the region.

Friday’s summit was Biden’s first physical meeting with a foreign leader, but he had previously joined Suga and the leaders of Australia and India in an online summit of the Quad, the informal grouping of democracies arrayed against China.

Moreover, the first overseas visit Biden’s foreign and defense secretaries made last month was to Japan and thence to South Korea.

US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House, April 16, 2021. Photo: AFP

Suga was able to expand his messaging to US audiences at the CSIS event, speaking particularly of North Korea and of Japan’s expanding multilateral trade and security partnerships.

He led with North Korea, noting that last month it test-fired ballistic missiles and has made over 80 such launches since he became cabinet secretary in 2013. While calling for trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the US to realize the North’s disarmament, he said “the top priority of my administration is the issue of abductions…President Biden expressed commitment to immediate resolution.”

That is a reference to a very knotty issue: The scores of Japanese abducted over the years by North Korea. The matter shot to prominence at a summit between then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2002.

In relation to that issue, Suga offered to meet Kim’s son, current leader Kim Jong Un, without pre-conditions in order to establish “fruitful relations” with North Korea.

Regarding China, he said,Japan’s policy is to firmly assert what should be asserted and strongly request China to take special actions.” He also said that China “holds the key” to North Korea.

As for human rights in Myanmar, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, he said Japan will “firmly raise its voice and work with the international community and seek concrete actions.”

Amid frequent references to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, Suga noted that, more broadly, Japan “must work to establish a stable relationship with partners and especially a close relationship with the US.”

While he talked of “tight bonds” and the “rock-solid” US alliance, Japan has in recent years also reached out to the EU, France, Germany, the Philippines, Singapore and the UK for defense partnerships.  

“We promote a strong Japan-US alliance and strong multilateral approaches at the same time,” Suga said.

In addition to the US and Japan’s other Quad partners, “ASEAN and Europe are becoming more interested in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Suga said. Calling this “encouraging,” he said it was “time to transform vision into action through activities and cooperation.”

It is not clear whether Biden will commit to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade pact that Trump exited in 2017. The US departure left Japan to take over the leadership of the initiative, which was rebranded the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP (CPTPP) and entered force in 2018.

That points to a certain hole in the Japan-US alliance.

Japan is part of the CPTPP and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade areas, and in recent years has signed bilateral FTAs with the EU and the UK. According to CSIS, a decade ago about 10% percent of Japan’s trade was covered by FTAs; now that figure is more than 80%.

Although Tokyo and Washington signed a limited trade agreement under Trump, the US is not part of any of Japan’s broader free trade agreements.

While Suga made clear the importance of the Quad security alliance, exactly what actions that four-nation grouping of regional democracies – Australia, India, Japan and the US – will take to counter China is still murky.

Suga referenced this when he told CSIS  that the Quad, “should tackle regional challenges and uphold universal values…step by step… to create a track record of concrete efforts.” In addition to upholding maritime security and creating quality infrastructure, the body should cooperate on critical technologies and climate change, he said.

Aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and Japanese Maritime Self-defense Force Akizuki-class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki (DD-118)(L) transit alongside the Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57)(C) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015. Malabar is a continuing series of complex, high-end war fighting exercises conducted to advance multi-national maritime relationships and mutual security.  AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT  / US NAVY / MCS CHAD M. TRUDEAU           == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / MANDATORY CREDIT: "AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / US NAVY / MCS CHAD M. TRUDEAU  "/ NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS / DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == / AFP PHOTO / US NAVY / MCS CHAD M. TRUDEAU
US, Japanese and Indian naval vessels during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015. Photo: AFP / Handout / US Navy / MCS Chad M. Trudeau

Moreover, exactly what kind of support Japan’s might furnish for Taiwan in the face of potential Chinese aggression is another grey area. Suga did not discuss that at CSIS.

Asked about Taiwan by reporters at the joint press briefing, Suga said he was not willing to reveal details, but said, “The importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is something Japan and the United States agree on and we affirmed this matter again.”

Experts yesterday told Asia Times that unlike extant Japan-US contingency planning for a crisis on the Korean peninsula, the two allies have no such protocols in situ to deal with an emergency in Taiwan.

The experts also noted that while the US can act forcefully when it comes to countering China in the military and economic spheres, commercial and political realities prevent Japan from acting in those same spheres with similar vigor.

And though Suga mentioned trilateral cooperation including South Korea at CSIS, the experts note that constant stormy relations between Seoul and Tokyo frustrate US efforts to coordinate activities in the region.