Home / Articles / The U.S.-Japan Summit: Uneventful and Indecisive
Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s summit with U.S. President Joseph Biden was awaited with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety in at least four capitals: Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, and Taipei. Both the United States and Japan have concerns about increasingly assertive Chinese behavior in the East China and South China Seas and escalating pressure by China to annex Taiwan despite the often expressed wishes of Taiwan’s electorate to remain separate. In the weeks before the summit, China’s state-controlled media betrayed its leadership’s concern by repeatedly warning the Japanese government against collusion with the United States.
As is typical of high-level diplomatic discussions, the parties have different goals which must be reconciled lest the ritual communiqué be little more than vacuous statements about the commitment of both sides to peace, stability, and protection of the environment. Here, the stakes were high: this was to be the first state visit of Biden’s presidency and, as such, a symbol of the importance of the alliance with Japan as well as a test for both leaders. Japanese media opined that, since his previous career had focused on domestic issues, foreign affairs were not Suga’s strong suit and fretted about what that portended. Japan wanted yet another reiteration of American support for its claim to sovereignty over disputed islands in the East China Sea known to the Japanese as the Senkaku and to China as the Diaoyu, and a commitment to move forward with relocating the Futenma Marine Air Station to Henoko, long delayed because of political and geological problems. The United States wanted a stronger Japanese defense commitment to the alliance, while Taiwanese hoped for both sides to affirm their opposition to Beijing’s pressure for incorporation into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). And Beijing wanted to forestall exactly those aims.
In a 90-minute telephone call with his counterpart Motegi Toshimitsu the week before the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi issued what he called a timely reminder for Tokyo to “stop heading in the wrong direction by ganging up with a certain superpower.” Taiwan was a particularly sore point in the conversation, with relations between Tokyo and its former colony having become increasingly close in recent years. Unnamed experts cited in Chinese newspapers warned that “China-Japan ties will spiral down sharply if Japan gets involved in the Taiwan question, as it is [China’s] bottom line and any foreign military interference will invite the fiercest retaliation from China.” Lecturing Japan against becoming a “vassal state of the U.S.” in so undiplomatic a manner may have alienated more Japanese than it scared, since their tone implied that Japan was, in fact, a vassal state of the PRC.
Following an embarrassing breach of protocol—only an army guardsman was present to meet Suga at the White House door when he arrived, with Vice President Kamala Harris hastily called in to deliver welcoming remarks for the mysteriously absent president—the optics of the visit went well. A 20-minute luncheon accompanied only by interpreters was followed by a 55-minute small group meeting and an extended two-and-a-half-hour gathering that included the U.S. secretaries of state, defense, treasury, commerce, the national security advisor, and the Indo-Pacific coordinator. Due to pandemic restrictions, Suga could not bring his cabinet ministers with him, but the high-level representation by the Biden administration was taken as emblematic of the importance that Washington attaches to the alliance. Biden and Suga addressed each other by their first names, and the atmosphere seemed relaxed.
However, an hour-long delay in the release of the joint statement gave rise to speculation that there had been last minute disagreements over the exact wording. Although this is possible, the text of such communiqués is normally carefully decided on even before such meetings formally begin, so there may be another explanation. While the statement eventually issued does not give a complete picture of what was discussed in private, it does provide clues, however imperfect. To be sure, the clichés were present. The two sides reaffirmed the strong bonds between them and their commitment to peace and security, international law, the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.
On matters of particular interest to Japan, the United States pledged to continue to work toward closing Futenma Marine Air Station, and endorsed the holding of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. On the core issue of China, Biden and Suga pledged to work with like-minded allies, such as Australia and India through the Quad, to build the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) while opposing any attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea—i.e., the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. They expressed “serious concerns” regarding the human rights situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, reaffirmed their strong shared interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and “underscore[d] the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage[d] the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issue.” This was the first time that Taiwan had been mentioned in a U.S.-Japan communiqué since then-President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Sato Eisaku did so in 1969.
As these developments were taking place, Japanese Minister of Defense Kishi Nobuo, a known friend of Taiwan and, in a strange twist of fate, Sato’s grand-nephew, posted photographs of himself on Twitter looking toward Taiwan from Japan’s westernmost populated island of Yonaguni. It is said that the two islands are so close together that one can see the other on a clear day, but as Kishi, perhaps seeing symbolism, noted, this day was cloudy.
What the words of the joint statement mean in terms of substantive policy is debatable. With cases of COVID-19 stubbornly refusing to diminish, a majority of Japanese citizens oppose the holding of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Construction on Henoko has been delayed yet again by the porous nature of the seabed, which has been described as having “the consistency of mayonnaise;” in February, environmental groups raised a new challenge due to concerns about the impact on marine life and sensitive coral reefs.
The Taiwan government expressed thanks for the joint statement and pledged that, while it would not succumb to pressure, neither would it make reckless moves. In the past, there have been concerns that strong support from foreign powers might tempt Taipei to take rash actions that might draw them into armed conflict with China.
U.S. supporters of Taiwan, however, had less favorable reactions. They noted that in the 1969 communiqué, Sato had said, “The maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was a most important factor for the security of Japan,” a considerably stronger statement than that in 2021. Moreover, Biden and Suga listed the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and Korea as the three flash points of the region, while not including Taiwan, which has been experiencing increasing pressure from flights over the median line that separates the two states and the more frequent presence of Chinese ships. Further, Suga gave an evasive answer to a pointed question from a reporter from conservative Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun on what Japan would actually do if a contingency were to occur in the Taiwan Strait. His reply, “I refrain from mentioning details since it pertains to diplomatic exchanges, but there is already an agreed recognition over the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait between Japan and the United States,” was found woefully wanting in substance.
More optimistic supporters of Taiwan opined that concrete details on cooperation in time of confrontation in the Taiwan Strait would have been discussed in private sessions, with skeptics countering that what is not made public is ephemeral and too easily deniable ex post facto.
In Japan, reviews of Suga’s performance were also mixed. Sankei Shimbuneditorialized that the agreement was “appropriate” and praised its “correct actions” in strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance but made clear that a stronger statement in support of Taiwan would have been preferable, since a crisis there might immediately spread to Japan. Also, given the prospect that the United States may lose its superiority to China in missile deployment, Japan needed to have the capacity to attack enemy bases. Center-left Asahi Shimbun, which was perhaps the most critical, faulted Suga for passively going along with Biden’s agenda and for not having adequately prepared for the summit. Until now, the paper observed, Japan had relied on the United States for its national security and on China, its largest trading partner, for its economic prosperity. But with Sino-American confrontation intensifying, maintaining a diplomatic posture of separating those roles had reached its limit. Japan should have taken the initiative in diplomacy by forming a strategy toward China before the Biden administration began initiating policy moves in foreign affairs. Instead, it had allowed Biden, who took office four months after Suga replaced Abe Shinzo as prime minister, to rapidly put together a China strategy and pulled ahead of Japan. Japan must move away from this reactive stance and demonstrate a more assertive posture in its dealings with Washington and Beijing, lest Japanese diplomacy be “meandering” in an effort to show both the United States and China that it is on their side.
China’s state-controlled mass media reacted predictably. Xinhua denounced the joint statement for meddling in China’s internal affairs: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands are integral parts of China; and the United States and Japan should not underestimate the PRC’s determination to safeguard its national sovereignty, security, and development interests. The Chinese foreign ministry lodged “solemn representations” with Washington and Tokyo, while the more assertively nationalistic Global Times specifically warned Japan that supporting Taiwan would bring further regional instability “where Japan will suffer.”
Thus far at least, there have been no deeds to match the Chinese rhetoric. Despite the acrimony from Beijing and a contentious meeting between high-level officials in Alaska last month, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua met in Shanghai and reached agreement to work together on controlling emissions. Perhaps, then, all four countries involved will resume business as usual.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.