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China To Loom Large At Biden's Summit With Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to media in Tokyo this month. Suga will take part in a Friday summit meeting with President Biden, the first foreign leader to meet the president face to face.
Eugene Hoshiko, Pool
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to media in Tokyo this month. Suga will take part in a Friday summit meeting with President Biden, the first foreign leader to meet the president face to face.

SEOUL — As Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has readied for his trip to Washington — where, on Friday, he will be the first foreign leader to meet face-to-face with President Biden — opposition lawmaker Shiori Yamao has been making preparations of her own.

Earlier this month, she joined dozens of other lawmakers in a new caucus to promote Japan's human rights diplomacy. The group is crafting a resolution criticizing human rights abuses in China and Myanmar and aims to pass legislation allowing Japan to impose sanctions on human rights violators.

Yamao's group is one of many factors — including surging domestic anti-China sentiment — pushing Japan's foreign policies closer to those of the U.S. This paves the way for the two countries' leaders to jointly criticize China's human rights situation, something that may emerge from Friday's meeting and would have previously been unimaginable.

As the Biden administration tries to enlist allies to help meet the challenge China poses to U.S. dominance, perhaps no nation is more central to the effort than Japan, due to its geographic proximity to China, its hosting of U.S. military bases and its political and economic clout. So China seems set to loom large at Suga's summit meeting with Biden.

"The United States needs Japan so much that the Americans will have no choice but to listen," says Mike Mochizuki, a political scientist at George Washington University. "But the problem is that the Japanese don't know quite what to say. They can't agree."

When it comes to Japan's policy toward China, "There's been a sort of jostling for influence among the hawks and doves," observes Ben Ascione, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.

In order to enlist Japan's help, the U.S. knows it has to re-up its strategic assurances.

The Biden administration has renewed the commitment made by previous U.S. administrations to defend the disputed Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands. And the Biden administration, as the Trump administration did before it, has adopted the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy formulated by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe five years ago — criticized by China as a plot to encircle and contain it.

Mochizuki argues that Japan faces a deep, perhaps intractable strategic dilemma.

"Given the choice, they would say, 'Well, despite all of America's faults, we would prefer America to China'" as the dominant power in Asia, he says.

Japan could cast its lot with Washington and confront China, but that could risk war or economic retribution from Beijing, Mochizuki says.

Alternatively, Japan could accept China reprising its historic role as creator and upholder of the Asian regional order. "But there are a lot of things about China that the Japanese find, frankly, distasteful," Mochizuki says. "And so they don't want that either."

Japan is constrained in its ability to help the U.S. confront China militarily, both by public opinion and its constitution, which forbids it from resolving disputes by war.

"Japan's made a lot of progress in reinterpreting and loosening the restrictions on its use of force," says Ascione. But he notes the progress is the accumulation of small changes over decades.

"Any expectation from the United States that Japan's going to make more than incremental shifts in its policy are likely to be met with disappointment," he warns.

At Friday's summit, evidence of the degree to which Washington and Tokyo have narrowed their differences in perceptions of threats and interests may show up in their statements on human rights, China and Taiwan.

Hawks in both Washington and Tokyo would like the allies to commit to jointly defending Taiwan from a possible attack by China, which Beijing warns it would launch if Taiwan declares formal independence.

A statement on Taiwan is "the one I would watch very carefully," says Ellis Krauss, a Japan expert at the University of California, San Diego. "If it's the usual boilerplate about 'we seek a peaceful resolution in the Taiwan Straits,'" he says, "nothing much has moved."

Anything more than that would likely antagonize Beijing, he says. And the U.S. and Japan have always avoided saying anything that might embolden either Beijing or Taipei to make rash moves, he notes. "So the strategic ambiguity was a very good thing," he says. "So I think they're going to preserve that."

The leaders are also likely to discuss building infrastructure to compete with China's Belt and Road project, building supply chains independent of China and competing with China in emerging technologies such as 5G networks. Krauss points out that Suga and Biden have plenty of other areas of cooperation to discuss that do not irk Beijing, including climate change and the pandemic.

And while the prospect of the U.S. and Japanese leaders preaching in unison about the importance of human rights and democracy might seem a bold challenge to Beijing, actions may fall short of rhetoric.

Despite decrying the military coup and brutal suppression of protests in Myanmar, for example, Tokyo has shown a preference for preserving its political leverage and economic interests instead of sanctioning the generals, as the U.S. has done.

Similarly, Japan opposed sanctioning Beijing in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, arguing that isolating China would make further democratic reforms less likely.

Japan is also the only country in the G-7 group of nations that has not sanctioned China over its treatment of its ethnic Uighur minority in the far west region of Xinjiang.

Japan lacks the equivalent of a Global Magnitsky Act, which the U.S. has used to freeze the assets and financial transactions of officials in China, Hong Kong and Myanmar. That's where lawmaker Shiori Yamao comes in. The caucus she chairs is working up similar legislation.

While she denies that her caucus specifically targets China, she believes Japan has a unique role to play in the region.

"The international community is being pulled in two directions," Yamao says, echoing Biden's language about a brewing battle between democracy and authoritarianism. "Will we maintain the values we have shared up to now or will authoritarianism become the more powerful?"

For her, the answer is clear.

"I think Japan should speak out about universal human rights, as one Asian country to another," she argues, "to dispel their misunderstanding that we are forced to accept Western values."

Beijing rejects the idea of universal values. And it dismissed Japan as a "strategic vassal" of the U.S. in response to criticism by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and their Japanese counterparts.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.