CHALLENGES FOR SUGA FOLLOWING SUMMIT WITH BIDEN
Returning to Tokyo from a quick trip to Washington for his first summit with President Biden, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga looked obviously relieved and happy as he told the press: “I think President Biden and I have something in common. As a matter of fact, we were so immersed in talking about ourselves when we first met that there was no time to even touch the hamburger served for lunch.”
The US-Japan Global Partnership for A New Era, a joint statement issued the day after the summit, referred specifically to the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” noting that Japan “resolved to bolster its own national defense capabilities,” with the US restating “its unwavering support for Japan’s defense…using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear.”
In an article in The Wall Street Journal dated April 14, Suga listed climate change as one of the topics he was looking forward to discussing with Biden, making no mention of impending issues like China’s growing assertiveness or international security. This made me more than a little uneasy about the possible outcome of the first face-to-face talks Biden decided to hold with a foreign head of state. As it turned out, my concern was premature, as Suga expressed in no uncertain terms his views on the threat from China and the need for Japan’s preparedness as a sovereign democracy.
The Suga-Biden talks, held amid the lingering global coronavirus crisis, probably have more important implications than any that American presidents have had with their foreign counterparts in recent years. Suga’s resolve to exercise strong leadership as head of America’s most important Pacific ally was amply reflected in his talks with his host, the joint statement, and his on-line address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) immediately following the summit.
The “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” had already been reaffirmed during the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee consultations held in Tokyo March 16. But the fact that the joint statement specified it again a month later added to the weight of the pledge the two nations made as regards the future of Taiwan. It was on the strength of that pledge that Suga made his commitment to enhancing Japan’s own defense capabilities.
Strengthening its national defense capabilities is the most urgent and crucial task for Japan. The military balance of power between Japan and China has tilted overwhelmingly toward the latter as a result of Beijing’s daring military buildup. Suga sees a problem with this, as he stated in his CSIS address:
“I have no intention whatsoever to concede in matters relating to sovereignty or fundamental values such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”
Noting that China has been going all out to arbitrarily change the existing order in the East and South China Seas by relentlessly building up militarily, Suga further remarked:
“Even in the midst of such a security environment, Japan is determined to protect the
lives and peaceful livelihoods of our people through our own efforts to improve our ability to respond and further strengthen our deterrence and response capabilities, based on our partnership with countries who share the same spirit, especially with the United States, our ally…The strengthening of the US-Japan alliance is needed more than ever in the Indo-Pacific. Elevating the US-Japan alliance to new heights is an important part of my responsibility in steering Japan’s foreign policy.”
Biden chose Suga as the first foreign head of state to meet him in person undoubtedly because he is looking forward to Japan’s greater cooperation on security from Japan. Specifically, Biden wants Japan to stop depending solely on the US for its national defense, expecting it instead to help the US in its role to safeguard the peace, security, and stability of the Indo-Pacific while remaining committed to Japan’s defense as an ally.
Suga resolutely responded to America’s request, spurring China to react vehemently. The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, derided Japan in an April 17 editorial:
“There is a strong ‘master-servant’ feature in this (US-Japan) relationship in terms of diplomacy…Japan’s diplomacy is only at ‘semi-sovereign’ level.”
The editorial asserted that the US-Japan alliance “could evolve into an axis that can bring fatal disruption to Asia-Pacific peace, just like the Germany-Italy-Japan axis alliance before and during World War II.”
I found the conclusion of the editorial intriguing:
“Finally, we advise Japan to stay away from the Taiwan question. It may play diplomatic tricks in other fields, but if it gets involved in the Taiwan question, it will draw fire upon itself. The deeper it is embroiled, the bigger the price it will pay.”
Beijing thus sent Japan an intimidating notice: it will never compromise over the Taiwan question and Tokyo should be prepared for all consequences if it remains committed to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. But Suga already has declared he has no intention “whatsoever” to concede and that Japan will not give in to any pressure. This, I believe, is what he genuinely meant in the series of statements he made in the US. What about the Biden administration then? As most of us already know, America under the Biden administration definitely is looking at China with a stern eye. There would seem very little room for America to make political compromises with China.
The harshness with which members of the Biden administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, deal with human rights issue is becoming increasingly clear with the passage of time. While some quarters have criticized the secretary for his confrontational rhetoric during the US-China talks in Alaska last month, I was strongly impressed by his surprisingly candid criticism of China’s behavior as a reflection of the straightforwardness of the Biden team.
The Biden administration is not likely to compromise easily and the US-China relationship would likely sour day by day. In light of the conflict of values across the board between the two countries, any improvement of their ties will be hard to come by in the foreseeable future. Certainly, nobody wants military clashes, much less an all-out war. But with this tense situation at hand, all nations must be prepared for any contingency.
China’s Ambitions for World Hegemony
On April 14, Biden declared that US troops in Afghanistan would be brought home by September 11. This decision is aimed at concentrating America’s military resources on its efforts to deter China’s coercion and aggressiveness, which now is Washington’s most serious security threat. After the Bush Jr. administration dealt with the 9/11 attacks, successive US administrations viewed terrorist forces as the main threat to America. Now, that focus has turned to China.
Over the past two decades in which America directed its energy primarily toward combating terrorist forces, China went on to become a formidable superpower through a rampant military buildup. Today it is America’s major threat.
Michelle Flournoy, a defense department strategist under the Clinton and Obama administrations, discusses whether the US military will be able to put a check on China’s growing military might and the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party for world hegemony in an introspective article in the May/June 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled American Military Risks Losing Its Edge: How to Transform the Pentagon for a Competitive Era.
Although the US is aware of the need to significantly change its post-9/11 defense strategy, warns Flournoy, the Pentagon has yet to be able to take specific measures to boost the capabilities of the US military to deter China. This is a serious matter; if China should make a move to take the Senkaku Islands or Taiwan, the US and Japan must by all means quickly collaborate to counter the aggression. That was the pledge Suga and Biden made, which prompted Suga to declare that he will not concede when it comes to fundamental values such as sovereignty and the rule of law. Now is the time for the whole of Japan, the government and the people alike, to ponder on the specific implications of Suga’s commitments.
As a sovereign nation, Japan must deploy the Coast Guard and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to counter any Chinese aggression—whether or not collaborative actions taken by the US are effective. Suga’s pledge to enhance Japan’s self-defense capabilities must reflect his resolve to cope with any possible contingency.
In order to honor his pledge, Suga must take the following steps immediately: 1) revise Article V of the Japan Coast Guard Law banning military action on the part of its personnel; 2) equip the JSDF with the ability to strike enemy bases; 3) expand the nation’s defense budget and significantly increase JSDF personnel; and 4) ensure that the JSDF is fully equipped in all areas of its operations.
Implementing these measures step by step will lead to the satisfactory reinforcement of Japan’s self-defense capabilities that Suga has committed himself to. Suga’s strong point is said to be a readiness to deliver the goods without fail once he makes up his mind. I sincerely hope that he is determined to stake his political life on opening a path for Japan to valiantly survive the stern geopolitical crisis it is faced with today.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 948 in the April 29, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)