Following previous virtual discussions, including as part of the recent summit between leaders of the “Quad” nations of India, Australia, Japan and the USA, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will travel to Washington DC on 16 April to be the first foreign leader to meet President Joe Biden in person. Conversations are expected to address global issues ranging from climate change to the coronavirus pandemic, however all eyes will be on foreign policy outcomes, especially those pertaining to China.
Establishing Foreign Policy Strategies
This meeting comes as both leaders are in the process of defining their administration’s respective foreign policies. Since taking office, the Biden administration has endeavoured to distance itself from the unilateralism that defined the Trump era, with efforts to reinvest in traditional alliances and multilateralism. This approach to foreign affairs with its commitment to the rules-based international order has been widely welcomed in Japan. While elements of Japan’s conservative elite favoured Trump’s approach, seeing it as an opportunity to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, the comparative stability and predictability now coming out of Washington is valued highly by many within Japanese foreign policy circles.
Whereas President Biden has set about re-defining US foreign policy strategy in opposition to that of his predecessor, Prime Minister Suga faces a different task. Following the sudden resignation of Shinzo Abe in August 2020, Japan’s leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected Suga as its new leader. Alongside being Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, Abe’s legacy was defined by his ability to walk the middle path in managing Japan’s foreign relations. During his premiership, Abe oversaw a growth in Japan’s influence in regional affairs through the Quad, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and his Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP), all the while maintaining strong economic and untroubled political relations with Beijing.
Selected for office as a continuity candidate, factional support for Prime Minister Suga within the LDP is premised on him continuing Abe’s middle path approach to foreign policy. As relations between the USA and China continue to deteriorate however, and pressure grows on Japan from regional allies to toughen its stance with Beijing, it is becoming clear that continuing Abe’s foreign policy approach may be an impossible task.
The China Challenge
The challenge posed by China informs much of President Biden’s foreign policy thinking, and efforts are being made to align key alliance partners with the USA’s China policy of being “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be”. A re-think in China policy is underway throughout Europe, with sanctions imposed on China being met with retaliatory measures against British and European politicians and academics. Australia-China relations are also at an historic low. However, despite these heightening tensions, Japan has managed to avoid Beijing’s enmity, and relations remain cordial.
Alongside efforts to maintain Abe’s middle path foreign policy strategy, many attribute positive Sino-Japanese relations to Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary General of the LDP and undisputed kingmaker in the LDP elections that saw Suga rise to become Prime Minister. Nikai is considered to be the LDP’s most pro-Chinese politician, and exercises significant influence over Suga’s China policy. If relations between China and Japan’s allies continue to deteriorate, however, Suga will come under increasing pressure from both Washington and hawks within his own party to re-think Japan’s China policy, and potentially Nikai’s influence. This pressure is already evident in efforts to co-opt Suga into joining other major democracies in imposing sanctions on China over reports of human-rights violations in Xinjiang.
While Japan has so far resisted aligning itself with US policy on China, it has made alternative efforts to reduce economic dependency on its neighbour and diversify supply chains in the name of national security. Following the closure of factories in China in the early stages of the pandemic, the Abe government allocated US$2 billion to help Japanese firms shift production away from China. In February, the Suga administration earmarked another US$2 billion for this project, which it claims is aimed at strengthening partnerships with ASEAN, a region noted by Abe as key to navigating the growing great power rivalry between the US and China.
Areas of Collaboration
Although challenging geopolitical conversations lie ahead for Biden and Suga, there remain numerous areas of more straightforward alignment and collaboration. Japan is a long-term advocate and beneficiary of the rules-based international order and has welcomed the USA’s return to key multilateral organisations and forums including the WTO, G7 and COP26.
Alongside working together in major multilateral forums, there are clear opportunities for deepened bilateral collaboration through increasing alignment and enforcing global standards on digital and physical infrastructure, a process which may help construct a clear alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Japan is also hopeful that the USA will re-join the CPTPP, however this is likely to be a hard sell politically to an American public which is increasingly sceptical about free trade agreements. Other key areas of collaboration include expanding global vaccine supply - a key takeaway from the recent Quad meeting - and climate change.
Joe Biden has made tackling climate change a key priority for his administration, and is set to announce the USA’s climate target ahead of the Earth Day summit he is convening with other world leaders on 22 April. With Japan having already set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 and currently considering raising its 2030 climate goal, Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi was quick to identify decarbonisation as a key area in which to strengthen the US-Japan alliance.
Amid the inevitable diplomatic pleasantries, Friday’s meeting between Biden and Suga may yet be an important juncture for the foreign policy agendas and China strategies of both Japan and the USA. Expected joint statements on both the Taiwan Strait and human rights in Xinjiang are early indications that Suga is being drawn into line with US policy on China, however it remains unclear as to whether Japan will join other major democracies in imposing sanctions. In the aftermath of the meeting, all eyes in Japan will turn to the prospect of Suga calling a snap election, a process that could afford him more policy space to re-define Japan’s foreign policy in the post-Abe era.