Steve April 16, 2021
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President Joe Biden is meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House Friday, with Suga the first foreign leader to be hosted by the new US administration.

China, COVID-19, climate change, trade, North Korea and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics are set to loom large during the talks as the Biden administration continues to pivot its foreign policy priorities towards the Indo-Pacific and its allies there.

The meeting may also see at least one major shift in Japan’s incremental but increasingly firm rhetoric towards China: Biden and Suga are expected to release a formal “joint statement” about the China-claimed Democratic island of Taiwan, according to Biden administration officials.

Such a joint statement would be the first of its kind in more than 50 years from the leaders of the two countries, and comes as the US, and to a lesser degree Japan, has sought closer relations with Taiwan.

“We’ve been clear publicly and privately about our growing concerns about China’s aggression towards Taiwan. China has taken increasingly coercive action to undercut democracy in Taiwan and we’ve seen a concerning increase in PRC military activity in the Taiwan Strait, which we believe is potentially destabilising our common position on Taiwan,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said ahead of Friday’s meeting.

China, meanwhile, has sent a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s airspace in recent days.

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 US will seek 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.

Biden and Suga will also announce a $2bn Japanese investment in 5G telecommunications to counter the growing technological might of China’s Huawei Technologies, and are set to discuss Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and its influence over Hong Kong, the administration official said, although a statement on Beijing’s alleged human rights abuses is considered less likely.

‘A lot of these lines to carefully manage’

The visit represents Suga’s first trip to the US as prime minister since taking office in September, inheriting a China policy that has sought to balance security concerns, particularly related to disputed islands in the East China sea, its deep economic ties with Beijing, and its close relationship with Washington, its sole military ally.

Nevertheless, there have 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 includes a statement following a March meeting of US-Japan defence and foreign ministers that named China directly – something Japan is not historically wont to do – while decrying Beijing’s “coercion and destabilising behaviour”.

In that statement, the two sides “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.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, 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,” he said.

‘Make sure they’re on the same page’

Japanese officials have so far been less clear about how far Suga will be willing to go on Friday.

A Japanese foreign ministry official said last week it had not been decided whether there would be a joint statement. Meanwhile, two Japanese ruling party lawmakers familiar with the discussions told Reuters news agency that officials have been divided over whether Suga should endorse a strong statement on Taiwan.

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.

The US official who previewed the meeting on Thursday also acknowledged that Washington and Tokyo have “slightly different perspectives” when it came to 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.

Quad

Among other agenda items, Friday’s meeting will seek to invigorate joint efforts between the US, Australia, India and Japan, an informal alliance known as the Quad, that the US has increasingly viewed as a bulwark against China in the Indo-Pacific.

Biden and Suga are expected to announce plans for the next Quad meeting, the official said.

Other “deliverables” are expected to include a “broader, deeper set of engagements across technology, policy, health-related matters, climate, and also regional security,” the Biden administration official said.

“I believe that the most important element of … this visit is for the two leaders to understand one another, to build trust and confidence,” the official said, “and really to take what is our most important alliance to the next level so that we’re not only cooperating on security and foreign policy issues, but increasingly, on technology, on economic issues, and across the board.”

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