On Friday, President Biden held his first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since his inauguration. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, the successor to Shinzo Abe, arrived in Washington D.C. last week and was hosted at the White House.
The conversation was, at first glance, nothing particularly groundbreaking. The joint statement issued afterward seems like a general continuation of existing policy agreements. This is not accurate.
Four years of diplomacy by tweet have likely caused a degradation in appreciation of subtlety for many Americans. Negotiations, particularly from the State Department and among high officials, are typically conducted in the margins of statements and hidden among word choices and details. That seems to be the case here.
The US and Japan have directly called out China as a regional antagonist: “Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order, including the use of economic and other forms of coercion.” This is important because China and Japan normalized relations in 1972, and over time China has become Japan’s primary trading partner. Their deep economic ties are the most likely reason that Japan is the only member of the G-7 which has not imposed sanctions on China over recent human rights abuses.
A public recognition of those crimes was provided in the statement – “We share serious concerns regarding the human rights situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The statement positions Japan on the side of the United States and other world leaders, but makes no promise that any level of sanctions will be pursued.
Most importantly, the statement specifically referenced Taiwan, which has not been part of a joint US-Japanese statement since 1969. “We reiterated our objections to China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea and reaffirmed our strong shared interest in a free and open South China Sea governed by international law, in which freedom of navigation and overflight are guaranteed, consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
In light of recent aggression by the Chinese navy toward Taiwan and the Philippines, this comment seems to be a direct signal to China that the nations are prepared to aid in defense of their trading partner, even without an official treaty requiring them to do so.
Other matters were discussed, such as the nations’ efforts regarding COVID-19, North Korean nuclearization and global warming. The movement of note came on the positioning of the countries regarding China, and because of Suga’s reluctance to press on sanctions, it is likely that most of the pressure came from the Biden administration.