Suga-Biden summit proves diplomacy is back

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden have held their first summit and issued a joint statement that serves as a guideline for the Japan-U.S. alliance. The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed an expert about the achievements of the summit and the tasks ahead for the bilateral relationship. The following is excerpted from the interview.

President Biden chose to meet with Prime Minister Suga as his first counterpart for in-person talks clearly because his administration places importance on Japan and because of its major strategy to deter China in the background. Although there were concerns that the United States might shift its stance and become conciliatory toward China, the leaders were able to present a message to the Japanese public that the Japan-U.S. relationship is the axis.

The U.S. side might have had the intention to provide Suga with a diplomatic win as a means to improve the prime minister’s approval rating and increase stability in Japan. If the prime minister is reelected in the Liberal Democratic Party’s election for party president, Suga’s term will overlap with the Biden administration’s first term. Japan and the United States will be able to cooperate while sharing the same time frame. Both of the leaders are in their 70s, and they are politicians who prioritize practical tasks over eye-catching performances. I think the chemistry between them is good.

Stipulation of the Taiwan Strait in their joint statement was the first shift in U.S. policy toward China in half a century.

While the statement promises wide-ranging cooperation for tasks that Japan and the United States will henceforth jointly tackle, such as climate change and human rights, the phrases were moderate, using the word “concerns,” and demanded that international order and laws should be respected. I assume the statement can be seen as a clear message to China.

Strong opposition from China is predicted, which means that the Chinese side may take intimidating actions around the Senkaku Islands [in Okinawa Prefecture] and Japan will face risks, to a certain degree. The statement was also a political message that Japan and the United States do not deviate from principles, even if it irritates China. Although the issues of the Taiwan Strait and the Senkaku Islands can be separated in Japan’s domestic situation, they cannot be separated in terms of security. Also, Japan will have to make a decision.

The government will be required to aim for seamless responses through collaboration between the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Japan Coast Guard; to integrate operations of the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense forces; to select and concentrate defense budgets; and to consider having the capability to attack enemy bases.

In the statement, the two leaders also expressed concerns about the military coup in Myanmar. Although there were concerns that Japan might be one step behind in human rights issues, the mention [of Myanmar] may be important when seen in the context of Japan expressing its determination to take concerted steps together with the United States and European nations.

Looking at the statement issued, there are traces indicating that diplomats had made very careful preparations. It’s a big change from the years of [former Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe and [former U.S. President Donald] Trump, when outcomes were unpredictable until the two actually met and squared off. The outcome this time was proof that diplomacy has returned.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Hirotaka Kuriyama

Koji Murata

Professor at Doshisha UniversityMurata, 56, is an expert on U.S. diplomacy and security. He is the author of books including “Ginmaku no Daitoryo Ronald Reagan” (Ronald Reagan, president from the silver screen), published by Yuhikaku Publishing Co.