China to be in focus at summit between Joe Biden, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga

Owen Churchill
·4-min read

China will feature prominently in Friday’s summit between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, with the two sides expected to announce new efforts to isolate Huawei Technologies from 5G networks and discuss deteriorating cross-strait relations with Taiwan.

“The United States and Japan seek to play a steady, careful role to underscore our mutual commitment in the maintenance of peace and stability” when it comes to the flaring tensions between Beijing and Taipei, a senior administration official previewing the meeting said on Thursday.

Biden’s hosting of Suga, the president’s first in-person meeting with another head of state, comes days after he dispatched an unofficial delegation to Taiwan in a show of support for the island.

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Earlier this week, Beijing sent warplanes to infiltrate Taiwan’s air defence zone in what officials later called a warning that the self-governed island should stop “working with the US”.

Neither the US nor Japan sought “to raise tensions or to provoke China,” the administration official said. “But at the same time, we’re trying to send a clear signal that some of the steps that China is taking – for instance, its fighters and bombers, flying them into Taiwan’s airspace – is antithetical to the mission of maintaining peace and stability.”

Beyond discussions on Taiwan, the meeting will also include an announcement of a US$2 billion commitment by Japan to invest in 5G technology and “next steps beyond 5G”, the official said.

Without elaborating on the substance of the announcement, they said Japan and the US would take steps to “support alternative 5G networks … beyond or outside of the Huawei network,” referring to the Chinese telecommunications giant that Washington considers a national security threat.

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The Biden administration views its relationship with Japan as critical to furthering its geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific region, with the administration official on Thursday describing the alliance as Washington’s “most important”.

“The United States can only be effective in Asia when the US-Japan relationship is strong and Japan is steady and stable,” said the official, who was speaking on background.

Yet despite common concerns between the US and Japan around 5G technology, supply chain security and cross-strait tensions, there appeared to be some daylight between their approaches to challenging Beijing’s human rights record.

Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven (G7) not to have punished China over its treatment of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, after the US joined with Canada and European countries to levy sanctions against Beijing in March.

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While Xinjiang and Hong Kong are likely to be discussed on Friday, both sides have “slightly different perspectives,” the official acknowledged, stressing that the US will not “insist on Japan somehow signing on to every dimension of our approach.”

“Prime Minister Suga wants to walk a careful course, and we respect that,” the official said, pointing to Japan’s deep economic ties to China. “We share general strategic views across Asia and the world, and I think the goal of these discussions is not to fully align, but to fully inform.”

In a further sign of the administration’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region, Biden will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the second half of May, the White House announced on Thursday.

The two summits come in the wake of a trip by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to Tokyo and Seoul last month, designed to shore up Washington’s regional presence after four years of unpredictable foreign policy under Donald Trump.

But the Biden administration’s courting of Japan and South Korea has coincided with an ever-souring relationship between the two countries themselves. Most recently, tensions have flared over Japan’s decision to dump water contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster into the Pacific Ocean.

“It is concerning to us, even to the point of being painful for us, to see relations between Japan and South Korea fall to the current level,” the administration official said.

“The political tensions are such that we believe it actually impedes all of our abilities to be effective in Northeast Asia,” the official said, adding that Biden would raise the issue with Suga.

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