May-June 2021 Articles

Japan – An Exercise in Summitry

Reshaping an Alliance to Reflect New Realities


Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide SUGA’s recent visit to Washington represented President Biden’s first in-person visit with a foreign head of government since taking office.  While the President has met with other heads of government these have been either virtual meetings or telephone conversations between leaders.  By no means has presidential diplomacy been at a standstill, but, until this Japan-U.S. bilateral, communication between leaders had been distant and digital, not up close and personal.

Given the limitations imposed by pandemic precautions, much of the pomp and ceremony of an official state visit were missing to be replaced by the more intimate settings of luncheon and tea sandwiched between bilateral meetings led by Vice President Harris in the ceremonial office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and led by President Biden in the State Dining Room of the White House now converted to a conference room.

Summits Do Not Happen in a Vacuum . . . Preparation is Intensive
As President Biden noted during Prime Minister Suga’s visit, “Our commitment to meet in person is indicative of the importance and the value we both place on this relationship between Japan and the United States – this partnership.”  The evidence of partnership is reflected not solely in this summit but in the extensive preparations that were undertaken in advance of the meeting.  Biden and Suga had previously met virtually at a February G7 consultation where discussion focused on responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and again in March at the first ever Quad Leaders Summit, where the screen was shared by President Biden, Prime Minister Suga, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

These gatherings, however, were only the most visible pieces of the preparations conducted in advance of the bilateral summit in at the White House.  In March Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Tony Blinken journeyed to Tokyo and continued on to South Korea to meet with their counterparts.  The United States hosted a trilateral meeting with national security officials from both Japan and Korea in early April at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss shared security concerns in the Indo-Pacific as well as to encourage Japan and South Korea to ease resentments that linger from Japan’s wartime occupation of the Korean Peninsula. 

And, Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, made a last minute trip to Tokyo in the week preceding the summit to discuss specific issues related to China and Taiwan and language that might be included in the documents that would issue from the White House hosted bilateral summit.  Any mention of Taiwan needed to be finessed because Japan wishes to avoid confrontation with China and at the same time is deeply concerned about China’s assertive maritime claims in the East and South China Seas.   No mention has been made of Taiwan in any Japan-U.S. joint communique since 1969 when Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku SATO and President Nixon referred to the importance of maintaining “peace and security in the Taiwan area.”

A Changed Strategic Environment Requires a New Understanding
Something new is afoot in the long-standing alliance between Japan and the United States.  Forged from the ashes of World War II, nurtured during the post-war American Occupation of Japan, and formalized in a Mutual Security Treaty originally signed seventy years ago (1951) and periodically renegotiated and reinforced, the basics of the agreement have changed little even as Japan  has become one of the world’s leading economies.  

Initially derived from what was called the Yoshida Doctrine- an agreement that the United States would maintain forces in Japan to guarantee the country’s security and allow Japan to focus on economic rebuilding – the mutual security treaty evolved into a continuing relationship which provided security guarantees to Japan, sometimes referred to as the “nuclear umbrella,” in exchange for Japanese monetary support for the continuing presence of U.S. forces based in Japan and limitations on the development of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces .  In part this was an agreement between Japan and the United States, but it was also a commitment to the Asia Pacific region that Japan would never again threaten the security of that region.

Today the security concerns of Japan and the U.S. are different than they were through the Cold War decades.  The greatest security threats in East Asia now arise not from Russia but from an increasingly assertive China  - equipped with a panoply of new high tech weapons, a blue water navy, and increasingly sophisticated air power -  and from North Korea, still a hermit kingdom but one that has long since learned to “play” the international community with potent conventional forces on the Korean Peninsula, ballistic missile testing that stretches North Korea’s potential use of force beyond the homeland to wider regional and global arenas, and the development of nuclear weapons capable of being mounted on those missiles. 

The global pandemic has also reshaped strategic thinking in multiple ways.  It has focused global attention on critical issues of trade flows and supply chains as well as the dependency that is inherent in economic interdependence.  Not only are there economic frictions generated by large-scale trade surpluses and trade deficits, but there are also growing concerns about the use of trade as a tool of soft power in the form of development assistance as well as an instrument of coercive power in the form of tariffs and economic sanctions.  Bring all these things together, and the result is enhanced awareness of the fragility of maritime shipping routes and efforts to interdict the critical principles of freedom of navigation.

These new realities in the Indo-Pacific region change the dynamics of the Japan-U.S. partnership.  The new realms of regional and global friction focus more on trade and economics, technological innovation and its civilian and military applications, and diplomatic initiatives that now must deal with an expanded range of issues ranging from the environment to public health and from cyber-security to an emergent cast of new non-state actors deploying an array of non-conventional capabilities.  This new regional context, what some have called a “pivot” to Asia, fits Japan’s 21st century capabilities well allowing it to take an equal and in some cases a leading role in the alliance.

Three Painstakingly Crafted Documents Emerge
Three core documents emerged from these in-person meetings between Prime Minister Suga and President Biden.  The first and most comprehensive is the U.S.-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement, “U.S.-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era.”  “Today,” the two leaders avowed, “the United States and Japan renew an Alliance that has become a cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.  An ocean separates our countries, but commitments to universal values and common principles, including freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, multilateralism, and a free and fair economic order, unite us.  Together we pledge to demonstrate that free and democratic nations, working together, are able to address the global threats from COVID-19 and climate change while resisting challenges to the free and open rules-based international order.”
While this statement first highlights hoped for areas of widespread cooperation such as dealing with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and dramatically improving preparedness for future biological catastrophes, it does not avoid referring directly to security concerns posed by China and North Korea.  “We are more prepared than ever,” say the two leaders, “to address regional challenges.  Our alliance advances a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”  Far from mincing words, the document underscores the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourages the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.  It also expresses “serious concerns regarding the human rights situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” and calls for the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” 

The second document creates the “U.S.-Japan Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership,” essentially a “pledge to revitalize our Alliance and make practical commitments to fulfill its potential.” The emphasis here is primarily on economic issues, especially those around technology and innovation perhaps most notably on the development of advanced, open and secure 5G networks; on the global response to COVID-19 and pursuing health security; and on climate change and clean energy by pursuing “green growth” by directing public and private capital into “climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments.”

The third document dealing with climate change and entitled “Japan-U.S. Climate Partnership on Ambition, Decarbonization, and Clean Energy” substitutes an interesting euphemism for the politically fraught term “global warming.”  Instead, the document offers the neologism “climate ambition” as a blanket description of efforts to slow degradation of the earth’s environment due to carbon emissions.  The two countries commit to a laundry list of climate remediation efforts ranging from renewable energy sources to long-duration energy storage and from hydrogen as a fuel to advanced nuclear power – energy sources in which Japan is making major investments.

A Model for Renewing Alliances
“Above all,” the overarching conclusion of the summit stated, “we renew our investment in the very idea of steadfast alliances – knowing that our partnership will make security and prosperity possible for both our peoples for decades to come.”  The core theme of the Suga-Biden bilateral summit may have been strengthening frameworks for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, but the meta-theme of this conference was the revitalization of regional and global alliances that the United States had critiqued, disavowed and allowed to atrophy in recent years.

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions