The US is playing catch-up with China in the 5G race. Photo: AFP / Getty Images / Josep Lago

When US President Joe Biden met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week in Washington, the highly-anticipated meeting was clearly aimed at China’s rising challenge.

While the two sides’ strategic ties were front and center at the face-to-face summit, the heart of their discussions focused on “practical commitments” to contend with China’s rising economic clout, with one eye on its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and another on its related rising tech dominance in 5G.

That was seen in the meeting’s focus on “high-quality” infrastructure projects, beginning with a US$4.5 billion next-generation technology initiative aimed at “promoting secure and reliable 5G networks.”

In a thinly veiled jab at China, Biden emphasized how the new high-tech project will seek to “protect the technologies that will maintain and sharpen our competitive edge” based on “democratic norms that we both share — norms set by democracies, not autocracies.”

The Japanese leader underscored the urgency of a revitalized US-Japan alliance by declaring, “This is a time like no other in which the Japan-US alliance needs to be strong.”

Ahead of Suga’s visit to Washington, an unnamed senior Biden official who spoke with media raised expectations of a “very substantial commitment” by both allies “to work on 5G [infrastructure] and next steps beyond.”

The official said the move aims to counter Chinese behaviors the US sees as “antithetical to the mission of maintaining peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific.

“The United States can only be effective in Asia when the US-Japan relationship is strong and Japan is steady and stable,” the Biden aide added, emphasizing the centrality of Japan to Washington’s China policy.

US President Joe Biden (R) 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. Photo: Doug Mills / Pool / Getty Images via AFP

Biden announced earlier this year that he has been in conversation with key allies including the United Kingdom to create an alternative to China’s BRI.

“I suggested we should have, essentially, a similar initiative, pulling from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help,” Biden told reporters following his phone conversation with the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month. 

As the world’s third-largest economy and a top investor in Asian neighbors, Japan will be central to any US-led alternative to China’s BRI, an infrastructure-building scheme covering an estimated 2,600 projects across multiple continents.

Covid-19 has taken a toll on the BRI’s progress. Beijing recently acknowledged that up to 20% of BRI projects have been “seriously affected” by the pandemic, which has adversely impacted global trade and travel and hit the fiscal capacity of many of the BRI’s recipients.

Any such BRI counter would compete with China in Southeast Asia, where Japan has a strong infrastructure-building history, albeit with less fanfare and self-promotion than the BRI.

Even before Covid-19 Chinese infrastructure projects in the region have been hounded by delays (Indonesia), bureaucratic resistance (Thailand), accusations of “debt trap” diplomacy (Malaysia) and big-ticket pledges that aren’t followed up with financial disbursals (the Philippines).

In fact, Japan is already moving in that direction. The latest official data shows that new infrastructure investment pledges by Japan ($367 billion) in Southeast Asia are actually larger than China’s ($255 billion).

In 2015, Japan launched a $110 billion Asian infrastructure fund to rival China’s $100 billion Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).

The Japanese-financed Tsubasa Bridge under construction in Cambodia. Image: Facebook

In 2018, the Trump administration launched its own $113 million infrastructure-building fund, though it was parodied by some for its small size compared to China’s $1 trillion BRI.

Together with Japan and other key Indo-Pacific partners, the Biden administration ultimately seeks to press ahead with a new mega-initiative that consolidates these pre-existing projects into a viable alternative to China’s BRI, including in the tech space.

Perhaps as a preliminary step, the focus seems to be on the development of targeted high-technology initiatives as the “tech war” launched by Trump against China intensifies under Biden.

The Biden administration recently blacklisted another major Chinese tech company, Xiaomi, based on national security considerations. The Trump administration targeted other major Chinese telecommunications companies including Huawei and ZTE on similar security grounds.

At the same time, the US is now exploring new initiatives that seek to prevent China from dominating other key strategic sectors, including semiconductors and rare earths production.

During their recent meeting, Biden and Suga focused on multi-billion-dollar “practical commitments” in this regard, including joint cooperation in the advancement of “secure and open 5G networks, including Open Radio Access Networks (“Open-RAN”), by fostering innovation and by promoting trustworthy vendors and diverse markets.”

The two allies also agreed to “[s]trengthen competitiveness in the digital field by investing in research, development, testing, and deployment of secure networks and advanced ICT including 5G and next-generation mobile networks (“6G” or “Beyond 5G”).”

To this end, the US committed $2.5 billion while Japan committed $2 billion.

Japan’s NEC company is making a splash on 5G infrastructure. Photo: Facebook

Moreover, the two leaders emphasized the need to build “on successful US-Japan cooperation in third countries and launch a Global Digital Connectivity Partnership to promote secure connectivity and a vibrant digital economy while building the cybersecurity capacity of our partners to address shared threats.”

The two allies also agreed to enhance scientific collaboration and exchange programs, which will aim to enhance their competitiveness in cutting-edge technologies.

The Biden administration is clearly going beyond and opting for a more constructive version of Trump’s strategy, which primarily relied on denigrating and demonizing Chinese economic investments, an approach that often alienated the US from its traditional allies.

It’s not clear though if Trump’s Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative, which aimed to expose China’s reputedly predatory investment practices in the region, will survive or play a role in Biden’s emerging plan.

For Beijing, the Biden-Suga tech initiative represents a new layer to what some see as an emerging “New Cold War” pitting the US and its allies against China and its partners.

In response, China’s state-backed newspaper The Global Times lambasted the new US-Japan initiative as an “unrealistic illusion”, which is “doomed to fail, given Chinese companies’ wide-ranging presence in 5G infrastructure and its huge domestic application market.”