With the Biden administration taking a more collaborative stance on peace and security in Asia, the U.S.-Japan alliance is growing increasingly essential even as it becomes more inclusive.
That’s according to experts from both the U.S. and Japan who addressed a Japan-America Society of Georgia audience for a “geostrategy” webinar March 26.
The longtime allies make up half of the “Quad,” a loose partnership of four regional democracies including India and Australia that have banded together in part to counter the rising influence of China in the region.
The group held its first-ever leaders meeting in March, just before Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to Japan and Korea to shore up ties with key allies. It also came before any bilateral meetings with Mr. Biden’s counterparts (though Japanese Prime minister Yoshihide Suga is set to be Mr. Biden’s first guest for a state visit in April).
Watch the full webinar below:
Holding the Quad meeting first was significant in showing that this was not an “on-again, off-again experiment in cooperation,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It basically sent the signal for all countries that this is the framing in which they would like to discuss the future of the region” and pool their resources to offset China’s growing influence, Dr. Smith said. “This was going to be new construction of how America teams up with others.”
The leaders meeting focused on areas of partnership like vaccine distribution, economic resiliency and technology policy — all areas where the U.S. sees growing strategic dissonance China, despite the fact that the leaders pitched the meeting as a way to show the promise of democracy, not specifically to threaten or exclude China.
Meanwhile, the “two plus two” meetings of U.S. cabinet officials in Japan and Korea took aim in their joint statement specifically at Chinese actions that they saw as inconsistent with international law. The statements made mention of Taiwan, and also pointed out that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty’s provisions extended to the Senkaku islands, which both China and Japan claim.
That last point carries considerable urgency, given a new Chinese law that empowers its coast guard to open fire on vessels encroaching on any of its claimed territory.
“Pardon the pun, but it’s a bit of a shot over the bow of any country with a territorial disputes with China,” Dr. Smith said. “Again, sovereignty doesn’t have to be determined, it just has to be claimed.”
Taiwan, the democratic island claimed by China, is a critical flashpoint here, said Koji Murata, president emeritus and professor of political science at Doshisha University. That’s because China claims the Senkakus by virtue of its claims of Taiwan.
Mr. Murata envisioned a coming 20 years of crisis from the late 2020s to 2049, when the People’s Republic of China will mark its centennial. During that time, the U.S. will be forced to cooperate with China on global issues like climate change and global health, even as their economic rivalry grows.
Japan now needs to take a more collaborative, expansive role in regional affairs, unlike during the Cold War when the front line was in Europe, Dr. Murata said.
“Japan is located at the front line of this confrontation, so Japan’s responsibility is much larger,” he said, noting the importance of the Quad as a framework.
Dr. Smith stressed that the Quad should not be seen as an “Asian NATO” but that the partners would need to act in concert where possible.
China under Xi Jinping, she said, is unlikely to veer back toward a conciliatory approach, a fact painfully clear in the tense remarks after a bilateral U.S.-China summit in Alaska in late March.
Arriving at a more robust and clear framework for global Digital trade that reflects the values of liberal democracies is one clear way the Quad could counter China’s influence.
While the U.S. would likely not rejoin the CPTPP, a multilateral Asian trade deal, anytime soon due to domestic political realities, the U.S. and Japan took one step toward harmonizing their views on e-commerce, privacy and other digital issues in their mini-trade deal under President Trump in 2019.
Dr. Murata noted that Japanese domestic politics will bear heavily on how the alliance plays out in the coming year. In July, Tokyo is set to host the pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympics, and an election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s president will take place in September. That will likely determine whether Mr. Suga, a protege of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will remain in power.
Many Japanese have been relieved that Mr. Biden has not jettisoned the approach of his predecessor, Dr. Murata said.
“Trump was and still is somehow popular because he took a very tough attitude towed China and had a good relationship with Abe,” he said. “Some Japanese people were concerned about Mr. Biden’s policy toward China, but now a few months havepased and Japanese people are more and more confident about the new administration’s foreign policy.”
Both experts emphasized the importance of reinvigorating people-to-people ties underpinned by sister-city alliances and the independent Japan-America societies across the nation. The event was held as part of the National Association of Japan-America Societies’ eight annual Japan Update series, with a focus on connecting “Geostrategy to the Grassroots.”
These links were emphasized again March 11, the 10th anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The somber date prompted an outpouring of remembrance video messages from more than 100 Georgians compiled by the Japan-America Society of Georgia. Watch here.
Learn more about the Japan-America Society of Georgia here.
Read more from Global Atlanta: Remembering Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake: Visit to Tsunami-Stricken Region Reveals Strong Georgia Bonds