Washington has increasingly hoped to count on its alliance with Japan to counter Beijing’s ambitions in Asia, especially with regard to the South China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing have been locked in a dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands or the Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese. Further adding to activity within the area, China has engaged in artificial island building efforts in the region, which has allowed it to support territorial claims to a vast swath of the sea within a “nine-dash line,” citing historical claims and maps as evidence that it belongs to China. These claims have been disputed by neighboring countries and have been ruled as not having any legal bearing by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or “UNCLOS.”
Additionally, Taiwan is another point of contention where the US is counting on Japanese support. There is increasing concern about Chinese actions in and around Taiwan, such as an increase in military aircraft flying through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and a buildup of military fortifications and offensive military drills taking place across the Strait, although it is worth noting that experts have strongly disputed that this means any sort of Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent.
The US-Japan summit
On April 16, 2021, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with US President Joe Biden in Washington for a summit to strengthen the strategic partnership between the two nations and address issues of concern in the Asian-Pacific region. Suga is the first foreign leader Biden has met face-to-face with, underlining the renewed significance that Washington is placing on the US-Japan alliance. The two issued a joint statement that addressed many issues, including the defense of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan, human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, among other issues. The Chinese Embassy in the US responded critically to the statement, stating, “Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang belong to China’s internal affairs. The East China Sea and the South China Sea concern China’s territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests. These matters bear on China’s fundamental interests and allow no interference. We express strong concern and firm opposition to relevant comments in the Joint Leaders’ Statement. China will firmly safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests. These comments have gone far beyond the scope of normal development of bilateral relations.”
Suga emphasized the importance of stability in the region, stating he and Biden “had serious talks on China’s influence over the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and the world at large. We agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas, and intimidation of others in the region.” On Taiwan, he stated, “there is already an agreed recognition over the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits between Japan and the United States, which was reaffirmed on this occasion.” His language, however, was clearly indirect to an extent, which could be due to domestic pressures in Japan to avoid overly angering Beijing, primarily due to the importance of trade relations between the two countries.
A new era for bilateral relations?
Nevertheless, the summit between Biden and Suga potentially marks a new era for US-Japan relations, which could see Japan increasingly at the center of US foreign policy. The Biden administration appears eager to obtain clear assurances of support from key allies in Europe and Asia, among other regions, to signal to China that the popularly held notion among Chinese leaders that “the East is rising and the West is declining,” is mistaken in its assumption and that democracies are still capable of acting in an effective manner to meet global challenges.
Yet, there is a fine line to be walked when gathering these assurances. Japan remains tentative to be seen as taking a strong and decisive stance against Beijing the way Washington has on matters of telecommunications, human rights issues, trade, and territorial ambitions, so it remains to be seen exactly what role Japan will allow itself to play within the ever-increasing tense US-China relationship. Specifically, if one looks at Japan’s actions rather than its words, on one hand, Japan has opted not to sanction China as various other G7 nations have for Beijing’s human right abuses in Xinjiang. At the same time, Japan has still worked to limit supply chain reliance on China and pay Japanese companies to move supply chains out of China. With incidents like strong Chinese opposition to Japan’s decision to release waste water from the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Sino-Japanese relationship also appears increasingly strained, however, which could foreshadow Japan’s more strong support for US-led initiatives in the region, even to the chagrin of certain Japanese businesses and politicians.
In the meantime, Washington and Beijing must do what they can to defuse Sino-US tensions to the best of their abilities, such as working together to reopen the consulates previously closed in both countries, or working to mutually recognize vaccines produced by each other to help facilitate travel as the two countries close in on herd immunity. Especially in this current time of vaccine nationalism, it is important to create bridges rather than barriers between different nations. Biden and Suga agreed to work with each other in the development of 5G technologies, and it is in this manner – out-competing China in key fields like technology, rather than trying to take actions that China perceives as US attempts to stymie its progress – that the US will be able to show to the world that it still remains a strong, highly competitive player in geopolitics. This is also the manner that is the least likely to result in increased tensions between the US and China, and allow the two powers to avoid potentially disastrous conflict in the future.