Age matters in Japan, so when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (73) sat down for talks with President Biden (78), deference to his ‘senpai’ (senior) colleague would have been his default setting. But from the looks of the joint statement following their summit, he seems to have held his own.
The main issue, it seems, was China. Japan wanted assurances from the US that their claim to the Senkaku Islands would be respected. The islands’ status is covered by the US/Japan security treaty, but as China routinely sends its own fishing boats to menace Japanese vessels, Suga was looking for a reaffirmation of American support.
A particularly worrying development is China’s new coastguard law, which allows it to fire on vessels which, by its own estimation, have infringed its sovereignty. The possibility of some sort of ‘gray zone’ maritime incident in the East China Sea, accidental or engineered, escalating into something more serious has long been a concern — it even formed to basis of the plot of a James Bond film (1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies). China’s new law appeared to make the situation even more precarious, but the two leaders’ statement was firm.
‘Together, we oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands,’ they said.
As for Taiwan, Japanese lawmakers are becoming increasingly concerned after China sent its largest ever fleet of 25 warplanes for a training exercise near the island recently. There are growing fears that China may seek to exploit Japan and the West’s preoccupation with post-pandemic recovery to make a move, either militarily, or through political and economic pressure.
In the joint statement the leaders said they ‘underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.’
This rather more nebulous language reflects the delicate position Suga is in when it comes to the more substantial issues. He is reluctant to align himself too closely with a hardline stance on Beijing that could blowback on him. He displayed his caution as the only G7 leader not to back sanctions over Chinese treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. He seems to be choosing his battles and and trying to keep his diplomatic options open.
Where Suga didn’t perhaps get quite what he wanted was on the Olympics. He was expected to urge, or even plead with, Biden to confirm the US would be sending a full team to the cursed event. So far only North Korea have pulled out, but with reports of rising COVID case numbers in Tokyo and Osaka, the games are still in the balance. The torch relay has begun, but the runners have been taking a circuitous route to avoid supposed COVID clusters. Biden seems to have skirted round the issue too, confirming his administration’s support for the games going ahead but stopping short of an absolute commitment to send a team.
As for the Suga-Biden dynamic, while their predecessors managed to forge a good working relationship based on personal compatibility and a mutual love of golf and fast food, it wasn’t expected that the Abe-Trump ‘hamburger diplomacy’ would be replicated by their successors. Suga is a prickly character, with limited people skills and little experience in foreign affairs. And Democratic presidents are still viewed with suspicion in Tokyo after the ‘Japan passing’ incident of 1998, when Bill Clinton spent nine days in China but skipped Japan entirely.
Abe and Trump had an ‘Odd Couple’ chemistry, and there were concerns that with Suga and Biden it might be more like the disappointing sequel ‘Grumpy Old Men’, but this fear looks to have been misplaced.