Will Japan Confront China? A Visit to Washington May Offer a Clue.


TOKYO — As he visits Washington this week, it will appear as if Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan might take a victory lap.

Mr. Suga is the primary overseas chief to be invited to the White House by President Biden, who has vowed to reinvigorate alliances. Japan already had the excellence final month of being the first international destination for the brand new U.S. secretaries of state and protection. And Mr. Suga won’t have to take care of threats of higher tariffs or the necessity for constant flattery that drove Mr. Biden’s mercurial predecessor.

But whilst relations between the 2 nations are calming, Japan faces a perilous second, with the United States prodding it to extra squarely handle essentially the most glaring threat to stability in Asia: China.

It is the most recent step in an age-old dance between the 2 nations. Ever for the reason that United States cast an alliance with Japan throughout its postwar occupation, Tokyo has sought reassurance of safety by Washington, whereas Washington has nudged Tokyo to do extra to safe its personal protection.

For many years throughout the Cold War, the pre-eminent threats appeared to come from Europe. Now, as Mr. Suga goes to Washington, Japan confronts encroaching risks in its personal yard.

“We’re in a completely new era where the threat is focused on Asia, and Japan is on the front line of that threat,” mentioned Jennifer Lind, an affiliate professor of presidency at Dartmouth College and a specialist in East Asian worldwide safety.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance is at a crossroads,” Ms. Lind mentioned. “The alliance has to decide how do we want to respond to the growing threat from China and to the Chinese agenda for international order.”

Analysts and former officers mentioned it was time for Japan to broaden its fascinated by what a summit with its most vital ally might accomplish.

Typically, a Japanese prime minister has a slate of agenda objects to tick off. This go to is not any completely different. The two leaders are anticipated to speak concerning the coronavirus pandemic, commerce, the significance of securing provide chains for elements like semiconductors, the North Korean nuclear menace and shared targets on local weather change.

“Usually when a Japanese prime minister goes to the U.S., there is a sort of shopping list: ‘Would you say this, would you reassure us about that,’” mentioned Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States.

This time, he mentioned, “that’s not what we should do. I think we should talk big about the world and Asia-Pacific.”

Such daring statements would run counter to Japanese officers’ deep-seated instincts. They have tended to keep away from mentioning China or its most delicate pursuits, preferring imprecise and sweeping language concerning the want to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific area.

But as China has repeatedly ignored diplomatic or authorized efforts to include its aggressive actions in each the South China and East China Seas, some say Japan wants to be extra particular about what it would do within the occasion of a army battle.

“Who doesn’t want freedom and openness?” mentioned Jeffrey Hornung, an analyst on the RAND Corporation. “By signing up for those things, you subtly take a jab at China. But what are you going to do when those things you say you’re going to defend come under attack?”

Japanese leaders normally use summits with American presidents to search assurances that the United States, which has about 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, would defend the nation’s proper to management the uninhabited Senkaku Islands. Over the previous yr, China, which additionally claims the islands, has despatched boats into or close to Japan’s territorial waters across the islands with growing frequency.

Perhaps the largest threat of battle, although, is within the Taiwan Strait, the place China has been dispatching warplanes to menace the democratic island, which Beijing considers a rogue territory. When Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Tokyo final month, they and their Japanese counterparts issued a statement stressing “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

If Mr. Biden and Mr. Suga embody related language in a joint assertion this week, it will be the primary time that the leaders of the United States and Japan have talked about Taiwan explicitly since 1969. At that point, President Richard M. Nixon and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato issued a statement through which the Japanese chief mentioned that “the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also important for peace and security of Japan.”

The gritty particulars of how Japan would possibly assist the United States and Taiwan within the case of an invasion by Beijing are in all probability past the scope of this week’s talks. While Mr. Biden is unlikely to make any blunt calls for that Japan pay extra for its protection, as President Donald J. Trump did, the present president might amplify latest alerts from his administration about efforts to deter China. One chance is that Japan might be requested to host long-range missiles, a proposal that might in all probability face vital home opposition.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Suga are anticipated to focus on not simply China’s army actions, but in addition its human rights file, in addition to the coup in Myanmar — seemingly areas of distinction between the leaders.

The Biden administration has known as China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims within the Xinjiang area a genocide and imposed sanctions on Chinese officers. It has additionally positioned sanctions on army generals in Myanmar. But Japan tends to be extra circumspect in addressing human rights or taking direct actions corresponding to financial sanctions.

Tobias Harris, an skilled on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, mentioned the Suga administration addressed human rights solely “rhetorically.”

“When you actually look at what they are doing,” he mentioned, “they are trying to somewhat keep their options open.”

For Japan, which conducts huge commerce with China and has investments in Myanmar, there may be a clear fear of backlash, and an understanding that Beijing can flip off the spigot at any time.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow on the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, famous that on the outset of the pandemic, China designated sure medicines and surgical masks as “strategic goods” and stopped transport them to Japan. “We can no longer rely on the free flow of goods from China,” Mr. Watanabe mentioned.

Some Japanese officers say Mr. Suga shouldn’t rush to comply with Mr. Biden’s tougher line on China and Myanmar. Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat who advises Mr. Suga, mentioned Japan’s strategy to such nations is “more dialogue than punishment.”

A individual accustomed to the considering of Mr. Suga and his cupboard who spoke on the situation of anonymity mentioned that regardless of the rising tensions, Japan didn’t need to upset its relationship with China. The individual mentioned that Japan had to ship a clear message to China on points just like the rule of legislation, however that the 2 sides must also preserve high-level communication.

Mr. Biden can also attempt to pull Japan alongside on local weather change. Both Washington and Tokyo are working towards drastic reductions in carbon emissions, and Mr. Biden is hosting a climate summit subsequent week. One objective is to persuade Japan to cease its monetary assist of coal initiatives overseas, which it has already began to scale back.

Mr. Suga could hope that a fruitful journey to Washington will bolster his standing at dwelling, the place he’s politically weak. The Japanese public is sad together with his administration’s administration of the pandemic and a gradual vaccine rollout (though Mr. Suga has been cleared to journey after being vaccinated himself), and a majority oppose the decision to host the Olympic Games this summer season.

The journey’s success could rely partially on whether or not Mr. Suga develops a rapport with Mr. Biden. Seasoned watchers of Japan can be carefully monitoring Mr. Suga, who just isn’t recognized for his charisma, particularly after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, spent appreciable effort and time wooing Mr. Biden’s predecessor.

“We have two older and very traditional politicians in a lot of ways,” mentioned Kristin Vekasi, an affiliate professor of political science on the University of Maine. “I will be curious to see what they do.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.



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