JAPAN’S METTLE TO BE TESTED IN DEALING WITH BIDEN ADMINISTRATION
With the 2020 US presidential election having yet to be certified, president-elect Joe Biden has started outlining plans and announcing key cabinet and staff appointments. Meanwhile, President Trump is reportedly discouraged about his chances of winning court battles over alleged voting irregularities. His prospects for overturning the voting results are not good.
On November 12, Biden had a 10-minute telephone conversation with new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, reportedly affirming America’s commitment to protecting the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea under the terms of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Although the Japanese media played that up, a readout of Biden’s remarks revealed that the president-elect did not specifically refer to the unmanned islets.
Biden is obviously choosing to refrain from rubbing China the wrong way. His “compassionate” China diplomacy contrasts sharply with the hardline policy of the Trump administration. In July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the US would break from its prior de facto neutrality and protect nations around China against its plot to wrest away their territory through “unlawful bullying and intimidation.”
Another important point of the Biden-Suga conversation concerned the adjectives the president-elect used in referring to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy—the “peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific Strategy” instead of calling it “free and open.” Biden also said “peaceful and prosperous” in discussing by phone the strategy with the leaders of South Korea, Australia, and India.
“Peaceful and prosperous” is the expression China likes to use, its meaning completely different from “free and open.” China maintains a defense strategy it calls “A2/AD”—”anti-access, area denial.” Defining the South China Sea, the Western Pacific, and the Indian Ocean as its exclusive territorial waters it rightfully dominates, China has adopted “A2/AD” as a framework to prevent free entry and navigation of the US naval fleet. From this, it is clear China is stringently opposed to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific. As far as China is concerned, the prosperity of the Indo-Pacific it desires is one based on China playing the key role in this region, ensuring regional security that only suits itself.
As it turned out, Biden in his telephone conversations with heads of states employed the expression that precisely reflected the intent of the Chinese leadership. In point of fact, neither during his campaign nor in the 2020 Democratic party platform did Biden even once mention the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” Conceivably, Biden is determined to change the nature of the strategy, which was initially proposed by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and subsequently woven into America’s security policy by Trump.
North Korean Abduction Issue not a Priority for Obama Administration
On his first visit to India as prime minister of Japan in August 2007, Abe delivered a brilliant address entitled “Confluence of the Two Seas” at the Indian Parliament. Viewing the Pacific and Indian Oceans as a vast strategic area that redefined conventional geographical boundaries, Abe proposed a scheme under which Japan and India would cooperate to “broaden (the Indo-Pacific) yet further, and nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparency.”
Five years later, in 2012, when the second Abe administration was inaugurated, Abe announced the “Asian Democratic Security Diamond Initiative,” which reflected the importance he saw of cooperation among the democracies in the Indo-Pacific region to secure peace, stability, and freedom of navigation. It was a grand design that called for a creation of a “security diamond” linking Australia, India, Japan, and Hawaii (the US) to protect the wide expanse of the seas stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. These ideas culminated in Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-China initiative (FOIP),” which was officially announced in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 2016 at the 6th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICADVI).
The FOIP, Japan’s countermeasure against the Belt and Road initiative announced by Xi Jing-pin in September 2013, was subsequently adopted by the Trump administration as a crucial element of America’s global security strategy. Trump formally announced America’s vision for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific during the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Danang, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017.
The idea central to the Indo-Pacific strategies promoted by the Abe and Trump administrations was that the two oceans, along with the South China Sea, must remain free and open because the interests of the entire world rest on a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific, as the regions combined constitute the largest economic engine of the world. The Indo-Pacific strategy is a powerful countermeasure against China, which claims the whole of the South China Sea and threatens the stability of the region by plotting to coercively change the existing order there.
But the expression “free and open” has completely vanished from Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy concept, as I have earlier indicated.
In an article in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020), entitled Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump, Biden launched a scathing attack on Trump for undermining American democracy and the ties with its allies. A marked feature of Biden’s piece is that, while discussing Russia and China as America’s adversaries, he distinctly comes out harshly against the former and indulgently with the latter.
Defining Russia as an aggressor, Biden maintains that the US must work out varied countermeasures against Russia, such as by enhancing military might along with other allies. But he preaches the need for cooperative relations with China in areas including climate change despite criticizing it for intellectual property theft amid a fierce economic and trade war.
I recall how the Obama administration, which Biden served as vice president, acted as regards Washington’s ties with Tokyo. The return of Japanese abductees from North Korea was not a priority for Obama. How Trump dealt with the issue was quite a contrast. He held three talks with Kim Jong-un, each time bringing up the abduction issue on behalf of his friend Abe, insisting that Kim resolve it as expeditiously as possible.
Biden’s China Trip Raises Suspicion
Also, the Obama administration was cautious in declaring that Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus.
Further, the administration exercised “strategic patience” and overlooked China’s blatant aggression in the South China Sea for four full years. As a result, America effectively allowed China to develop the infrastructure it needed to control practically the whole of the area.
Inaction on the part of the Obama administration also directly affected Japan’s national interests when China imposed an arbitrary air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in November 2013 over an area in the East China Sea that included the Senkakus. China’s Defense Ministry abruptly demanded that all aircraft entering the zone submit flight plans, warning that China would “adopt defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that refused to follow their instructions.
Bowing to this illegal demand, the Obama administration readily instructed American airlines to comply. On the contrary, the Abe administration told Japanese airlines to ignore the demand. I believe Abe’s response was far more sensible. The following month, on December 5, to be specific, Biden visited China. Right after this visit, his son Hunter, whom he had taken to China with him, assumed an executive position with a Chinese investment firm.
Incidentally, a New York daily reported in October that a laptop belonging to Hunter had been delivered to the FBI, which allegedly found suspicious emails and images—purportedly “evidence” of Hunger’s secret dealings in China and Ukraine. Hunter’s visit to China, which aroused suspicion about his alleged wrongdoing, coincided with China’s imposition of the ADIZ over the East China Sea. One wonders why Biden visited China as vice president at the time, why his son accompanied him, and how come he assumed an executive position with the Chinese firm soon afterward. One doesn’t have to be Trump to take notice of the ties between China and the Biden family.
I am one who is seriously concerned about the ongoing China policy of the Japanese government. Toward the end of the Abe administration, the government reworded its Indo-Pacific strategy to the Indo-Pacific “initiative”—presumably out of consideration for China. Do they honestly thing such a cheap trick works? Faced with the threat from China which has steadily been beefing up its military forces, Japan must rightly reinforce real power to protect itself. That means having the mettle to shore up the Japan Coast Guard committed to the defense of the Senkakus, strengthen the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces, promote military cooperation among Japan, the US, Australia, and India, and invite many more nations to participate in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy for a grand coalition of allies.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 929 in the December 10, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)