Economic ties with China restrain Suga’s approach

U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
The U.S. missile destroyer USS John Finn traverses the Taiwan Strait on March 10.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden, bearing in mind the threat posed by China, agreed to consider concrete measures to strengthen their alliance at the Japan-U.S. summit on Friday.

Suga showed confidence after the meeting that he would be able to establish a good relationship with Biden. “I can continue to associate with Mr. Biden,” he told reporters.

Suga confided his worries to aides while preparing for the summit, making comments such as, “I am worried about how to keep pace with the United States regarding China.”

The prime minister was particularly concerned that Biden would ask Japan to play a more active role in dealing with an emergency situation in Taiwan, and that Japan would be forced to decide whether to side with the United States or China.

The situation regarding Taiwan has become tense as a result of events including Chinese military aircraft intruding into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Some Japanese and U.S. officials argue that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could become a reality in the future.

“The situation could change after the 2022 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, or after 2027, when the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese military will be marked,” a senior Japanese Defense Ministry official said.

Behind the scenes, the Japanese government is considering several scenarios based on security-related laws, including applying the “situations that will have an important influence,” which allows the Self-Defense Forces to provide logistic support, such as refueling U.S. ships. Another is the “survival-threatening situations,” which allows the SDF to exercise the right to collective self-defense to a limited extent.

Suga consulted two former prime ministers prior to his visit to the United States.

“You should look at the reality of the situation and speak harshly about China,” former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a meeting with Suga on March 29.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is also the finance minister, during an April 6 luncheon with Suga said the SDF and the U.S. military should strengthen cooperation on the Taiwan issue.

However, Suga and the two former prime ministers have slightly different views on China.

Although the three leaders agree on the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, Suga is said to believe that it is more important to create an environment for a peaceful settlement of disputes than to prepare for a contingency based on a hard-line stance toward China. Suga’s thinking takes into account Japan’s deep economic ties with China.

Japan will inevitably be forced to prepare further if China escalates its military pressure, and Suga expressed his determination to beef up Japan’s defense capabilities at a joint press conference with Biden.

It is essential for Suga to formulate a unique diplomatic and security strategy on his own in order to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and reduce Japan’s economic dependence on China in preparation for a prolonged confrontation between the two global military powers.