Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.05.12

Beijing will be watching Suga-Biden talks closely

the japan times on April 17, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. China

A series of important incidents and events have preceded Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s first face-to-face summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington. These mostly serious and often ominous political and military developments that have occurred in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in the world include:

  • On April 8, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman said a China-focused bipartisan agreement was reached on a Strategic Competition Act of 2021.
  • On April 10, Russia was reported to have tried to test the U.S. by deploying a massive military force, it’s largest in years, near the Ukrainian border, both on land and at sea.
  • On April 11, a purported covert cyber-operation by Israel destroyed or damaged nuclear-related equipment at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.
  • On April 12, Taiwan said China flew 25 warplanes into its air defense identification zone, reportedly the largest breach since last September.
  • On April 13, an Israeli-owned ship was attacked near the shores of the Fujairah Emirate in the United Arab Emirates.
  • On April 13, The 2020 U.S. Threat Assessment Report warns that China poses one of the largest threats to the United States.
  • On April 14, Biden said U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be gradually withdrawn starting May 1, with the process to be completed by Sept. 11.

Naturally, these incidents have caused a degree of alarm in Tokyo but, from a broader perspective, they could also ultimately test the viability of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

That said, the mainstream media in Tokyo have been relatively quiet on Suga’s visit to Washington so far. Only two daily newspapers, the liberal Mainichi Shimbun and the conservative Sankei Shimbun, ran contrasting editorials on April 14 and 15.

The following are the summaries of the editorials:

The Mainichi editorial called for prudent policy coordination on China. “Washington may ask Tokyo to share some of the burden in such areas as high-tech and security. Japan’s business circles are concerned and there are requests that Japan can never deliver. Japan must have a tough and consistent policy,” the editorial concluded.

The Sankei editorial called for making the alliance more concrete. The editorial states that “Suga’s priority is to defend Japan” and urged him to discuss with Biden such issues as how to deter China, to explore Japan’s new roles in the alliance and to reconfirm the importance of the Taiwan Strait.

Pundits in Japan are ambivalent. Some claim that Suga should reject a U.S. request that Tokyo side more clearly with Washington on issues of human rights. Others assert that Suga should just sit back, smile and remain noncommittal because Japan’s best interest is to keep neutral between the United States and China.

Foreign journalists based in Tokyo seem to be puzzled, too. Some asked me what if China retaliates against Japanese companies and businesses if Suga and Biden agree on issues related to Taiwan, for example. Others asked me why Japan did not join the G7 sanctions against China over the human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Tokyo, however, seems to have already passed the point of no return with the Japan-U.S. two-plus-two joint statement in March. China has labeled Japan an American “strategic vassal” and warned there would be “consequences for those who take the initiative to undermine its sovereignty.” Well, the last thing Tokyo wishes to become is a vassal of China, period.

If the Japan-U.S. summit in Washington should prompt a furious reaction from China, it will not only move Tokyo and Washington closer together and undermine the strategic interests of the Chinese Communist Party in the years to come. Rest assured, though, Tokyo is always ready to talk with Beijing and the door will not be closed.

If Beijing is considering an attempt at driving a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, I would kindly recommend that Chinese leaders read the latest version of the U.S. Threat Assessment Report and recent testimonies by the director of national intelligence and her colleagues in hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The report states, “The Chinese Communist Party will continue its … efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system.”

The report continues, “Chinese leaders probably will, however, seek tactical opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington if such opportunities suit their interests.” The report does not predict a military confrontation with China but implies that Beijing’s so-called “gray zone” activities to enhance its influence will intensify.

I enjoyed both reading the publicized report and watching the entire unclassified hearing on April 14, albeit at midnight in Tokyo for two hours. The witnesses were no-nonsense professionals but, as is to be expected, in the world of the intelligence community, what is not said or written is far more important than what is.

That said, I sincerely hope that Beijing will listen to and read what Prime Minister Suga and President Biden had to say during their talks. There were no misunderstandings between the two leaders going into the summit, including issues related to Taiwan.

China’s Global Times ran an editorial on April 14, commenting on the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan that said, “The U.S. miscalculated China 70 years ago, and hopefully it will not repeat the same mistake.” No, Biden makes no miscalculations. Unlike his predecessor, he reads the President’s Daily Briefing every day.