Joe-Yoshihide Summit: The Bottom Line

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The summit between Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden will come out sounding like a success.  But lurking underneath is a much greater tension in U.S.-Japan relations.

As Al Jazeera put it, in regard to this summit China is the elephant in the room.

A critical issue is Japan’s reliability as China ratchets up the regional military threat and advances plans to attack Taiwan.

Related to the problem of Japan, there is much uncertainty about Biden and his administration.

Biden has made a series of far reaching mistakes in foreign policy.  In the Middle East he has pulled U.S. air defense systems out of Saudi Arabia and pulled an aircraft carrier out of the Persian Gulf. These steps encouraged the Iranians and their Houthi proxies to step up missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, focusing on Saudi Arabian oil installations.  Biden has responded to these advanced threats by cutting off arms sales to the Kingdom.

In Afghanistan Biden has decided to pull all U.S. forces out of the country by June, without any workable agreement with the Taliban.  Whether Biden will also cut arms sales and supplies to the Afghan government is not known, but once the U.S. troops go, the likelihood of an exodus of top leaders from Afghanistan seems a certainty.  Aside from the global black eye for the United States, the Afghan debacle will cause chaos that could well spread in the region, encouraging radical Islamists to seize power elsewhere, for example in Pakistan.

With Russian troops concentrating on Eastern Ukraine near Donbas and in the Crimea, Biden went out of his way to commit the United States to Ukraine without thinking through the implications of what this entails.  The Russians see it as a direct threat from the United States but are not backing down: in fact, Russia continues the military buildup, has closed the Kerch Strait, has got the Turks to deny access to the Black Sea for two U.S. warships (the USS Donald Cook and the USS Roosevelt) which they can do under the Montreux Convention, and themselves have carried out live fire naval drills.  In the meantime, Biden apparently called President Vladimir Putin on the telephone proposing a summit meeting in a third country.  While the Russians were considering the proposal, Biden slapped sanctions on Russia which, justified or not, raised the temperature of a possible confrontation and undermined any initiative looking for a political resolution of the current Ukraine crisis.

Meanwhile China has stepped up its harassment of Taiwan, sending more than twenty warplanes circling the island aggressively.  At the same time China has been pushing the Japanese around in the Senkaku islands, which are Japan’s territory (although China does not recognize Japan’s sovereignty).

Suga, himself, is not at all a free agent.  He comes to the summit under considerable home pressure from two directions.  The purely domestic element is the Japanese government’s failure to roll out a vaccine program to protect its citizens.  COVID infections in Japan are on the rise.  Only this week did Japan start to vaccinate older people, a step that should have been done months ago.

The second problem for Suga is China.  Japan does not have one voice on China.  Reportedly Japan’s National Security Council appears to side with the United States against China on security issues.  Japan, for example, has been pleading for U.S. help in the Senkakus. But the Foreign Ministry is far more circumspect and wants to continue to work on improving relations with China, so the Ministry is against provoking China or giving explicit backing to any military moves that would cause “trouble” with China.  The Ministry’s worries extend to not getting too upset about Hong Kong, the Uighurs or any other human rights issue that might hinder rising trade and good relations with China.

But Suga’s problem goes even deeper. The main power broker in the ruling LDP party, Toshihiro Nikai is pro-China. He has led numerous delegations to China, supports China’s Belt and Road initiative, and has significant control within the LDP.  It was Nikai who was able to get Suga the PM job.

The LDP itself is facing elections –party elections in September and a general election on October 22nd.  Suga is trying to hang on as the party leader and PM, which is one of the big reasons he showed up in Washington to meet with Biden.  But to keep his position he has to keep Nikai on his side, or he could be dumped.  Moreover he has to demonstrate some traction with voters, especially in the midst of the pandemic and the poor government response record.

While Suga and Biden may agree on some topics –climate change, technology, trade and perhaps some moderate words on China, the truth is that Japan is under considerable internal political tension.  As a defense partner, not much can be expected under current circumstances.  The summit won’t change that.

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