Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga heads to Washington before the weekend to become the first foreign leader to hold face-to-face talks with US President Joe Biden, with concerns about China topping the agenda.
Suga will be hoping to renew the all-important alliance with Washington after the Trump era, as well as compare notes on an increasingly assertive Beijing.
The trip comes after two top US officials visited Japan in March, and following a summit of leaders from the Quad alliance – a grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
The theme of all the diplomatic activity has been clear: signalling a united front to Beijing at a time of growing concern about its military stance and human rights issues.
In Tokyo, Suga’s trip is seen as “a sign that the United States puts top priority on East Asia in its diplomacy,” said Kunihiko Miyake, president of Japan’s Foreign Policy Institute think-tank.
“It means Washington now shares Japan’s concerns about a dramatic change in the strategic environment in East Asia over the past decade,” said Miyake, a former foreign ministry official.
Japan has been increasingly vocal about China’s maritime expansion and military build-up, publicly protesting the presence of Chinese vessels around disputed islets known as the Senkaku by Tokyo and the Diaoyu by Beijing.
Meanwhile, relations between Taiwan and the United States are “stronger than ever,” an envoy for Biden said Thursday during a visit to the democratic island as it faces increasingly hostile moves by China.
Former senator Christopher Dodd and former deputy secretaries of state Richard Armitage and James Steinberg were asked by Biden to travel to Taipei this week, in the first such delegation since the new US administration came to power.
“I can say with confidence the US partnership with Taiwan is stronger than ever,” Dodd said as he met with President Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday morning.
A joint statement from Biden and Suga is expected to restate that the Tokyo-administered islands are protected under the Japan-US security treaty. It could also reference concerns over human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
The two sides may struggle to agree on some other areas, however, said Kyoji Yanagisawa, president of the International Geopolitics Institute Japan, with Tokyo favouring a more cautious tone than Washington.
“The impact of intensifying US-China tension on Japan, a neighbour of China, will be significant in both national security and economic terms,” Yanagisawa said.
“Japan needs to think about how it will be able to mediate between the US and China,” he told AFP.
Recent lower-level talks have called for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
But the Financial Times reported this week that Washington wants a joint statement referencing Taiwan, which would be the first by US and Japanese leaders since 1969.
Japan has considerable concerns about the economic impact of irritating Beijing, its number one trading partner, after recent attempts to improve diplomatic ties.
Tokyo is unlikely to back calls for economic sanctions over human rights violations in China, said Robert Dujarric, an East Asia expert at Temple University, Japan Campus.
“If the United States is positioning itself towards economic sanctions or retaliatory measures against China, there will perhaps be some pressure for Japan to participate, which they won’t like,” he told AFP.
Miyake said Japan would focus on what it can do with other nations “to nudge China to become a responsible member of the international community.”
On the other hand, Taiwan’s 23 million people live under the constant threat of invasion by authoritarian China, which uses diplomatic, economic and military pressure to keep the island isolated on the world stage.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to one day seize it.
China’s saber-rattling has increased considerably over the past year, with fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers breaching Taiwan’s air defense zone on a near-daily basis.
“Recently China has frequently dispatched military vessels and aircraft to carry out maneuvers in waters and airspace surrounding Taiwan,” Tsai told Dodd.
“These actions alter the status quo in the Indo Pacific and threaten regional peace and stability.”
A record 25 Chinese military jets and bombers breached Taiwan’s defence zone on Monday just ahead of the visit, which Beijing condemned.
The exercises have rattled senior US military figures who have publicly warned policy makers in recent weeks that Beijing may be considering an invasion.
Analysts are divided on how likely such a drastic move is and warn any invasion could prove enormously costly to China, despite its military might.
Washington has diplomatically recognized Beijing over Taiwan since 1979.
But it maintains relations with Taipei and is bound by an act of Congress to sell the island defensive weapons. It also opposes any attempt by China to change Taiwan’s future by force.