Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s low-profile visit to Washington DC on April 16 tells us a lot about ongoing transformation of the global politics. President Biden chose Japan’s Prime Minister Suga for the first face-to-face meeting with world leaders. As if to emphasize the pragmatic nature of this meeting, two leaders never touched on hamburgers, which were served to show the symbolic modicum of courtesy.
The topics of the meeting were not exclusively US-Japan bilateral issues, but global and strategic issues which mean China. US-Japan bilateral relations has been reconfigured in terms of the US strategy on China.
It was just two days after President Biden’s announcement of the complete withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. Two decades of the US intense involvement to the wider Middle East for its “global war on terror” is coming to end and the attention is shifting to its rivalry with China.
The US “Pivot” or “Rebalance” to Asia” has finally begun to be materialized, after two administrations since it was first envisioned during the Obama administration. The US and Japan is closely cooperating with each other in an effort to form a new alignment of like-minded nations in the vast Indo-Pacific, securing free and open maritime trade, which was started during the Trump administration and more systematically followed through by Biden administration.
The core issue which everyone has wanted to avoid was, however, Taiwan. China’s assertiveness has been steadily intensified and recently there are rising sense of emergency on the side of the US and Japan anticipating the possibility of the conflict over Taiwan, observing the increasingly threatening behavior by China.
This time, this issue was not avoided. In their joint statement, two leaders underscored “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” They reaffirmed the importance of “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” This has been the long-held position sustained by the US and Japanese government but not openly upheld in the summit meetings after the diplomatic normalization with the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party’s rule in 1970s.
Not only Taiwan issues, concerns regarding the human rights situation in Hong Kong and Uyghur issues were also mentioned.
There was a clear message from the US administration that US strategic shift Asia is serious and its relationship with Japan is the cornerstone and the starting point. Now that the Biden administration’s commitment is clear, Japan’s commitment is in question.