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Biden, Suga and the future of the Indo-Pacific: 3 analysts explain

James Schoff, Wang Yong and Bilahari Kausikan share their takes on the summit

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden. (Biden photo by AP)

WASHINGTON/BEIJING/JAKARTA -- Friday's meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden brings together two key players in the intense competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Biden's closely watched first face-to-face meeting with another world leader is expected to cover how to address China's maritime assertiveness and threats to economic security, along with the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Other issues on the agenda include climate change and building supply chains for such important goods as semiconductors.

James Schoff, senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation, expects the leaders to begin discussing scenarios for dealing with China's increasing military and economic pressure on Taiwan, and setting the tone for their response. He noted semiconductor supply chains as a particular area of concern, and one where Washington and Tokyo can consider specific steps to take in coordination with Taipei.

Wang Yong, a professor at China's Peking University, warns that Japan could jeopardize its own interests if it does not avoid certain diplomatic land mines like Taiwan.

Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore's Foreign Ministry, anticipates the U.S. and Japan upholding their commitment to a rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. He stressed Washington's vital role in a region now caught in a strategic stalemate as Beijing and Southeast Asian nations refuse to budge on competing territorial claims there.

Edited excerpts from their interviews follow.

From left, James Schoff, Wang Yong and Bilahari Kausikan spoke with Nikkei about the upcoming Japan-U.S. summit.

James Schoff, senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation

Q: How do you think the U.S. and Japan will approach the Taiwan issue?

Schoff: There's no doubt that there is some sense of urgency, given the increasing amount of military and economic pressure that China is exerting on Taiwan.

I don't expect the two leaders to get too aggressive too quickly. I think there's a lot of room for caution here, but [the two governments] need to keep sharing information and begin having dialogues or discussions on various situations and scenarios.

I would expect this leadership meeting will help set the tone of where we go from here, in terms of what pace, what level of intensity of policy coordination vis-a-vis Taiwan is the appropriate level.

Clearly the most difficult scenario or challenge is one that involves the military, but there are others regarding use of economic coercion. 

But another really important topic is going to be the semiconductor chip supply chain dynamic, and that's directly tied to the Taiwan situation. I think that's a very focused area of conversation that will lead to ideas of specific steps we can take, and coordinated steps we can take, in cooperation with Taiwan.

The coast guard law is another one that has implications for the East China Sea and elsewhere. With the U.S.-Taiwan coast guard memorandum of understanding being signed recently, and some U.S.-Taiwan coast guard cooperation, I expect there will be a question as to would Japan become a part of some kind of coast guard initiative, with Taiwan, or not?

Q: The U.S., the EU and Canada imposed sanctions on China over the Xinjiang issue, but Japan did not.

Schoff: I think Biden will be advised by his team that Japan has limited options in terms of what they can do, legally. The legal structure in Japan is different from here, with respect to imposing sanctions for human rights violations, and that will be explained to him. 

But I think he will be hoping to hear what Prime Minister Suga thinks about this situation and what Suga is prepared to do. It doesn't have to be a copy of what the U.S. and Europe are doing.

I think, legally, there are things that Japan can do, or at least the government can advise companies to take certain steps that would give the companies some kind of political cover for taking steps to eliminate supplies of Xinjiang cotton or other types of things.

Q: The U.S. had a meeting recently with Japan and South Korea. The U.S. tried to finalize North Korea policy and to coordinate with these two countries. Do you think the Biden administration can get North Korea to sit at the table and talk about denuclearization?

Schoff: The North Korea outreach was a similar dynamic with the China dynamic, where they really wanted to talk in person and not just pass messages through the media or through other intermediaries.

Denuclearization is still the primary objective, and the Biden team will probably only engage with North Korea if denuclearization is one of the things that they're talking about.

I think the Biden team is very skeptical that North Korea will actually take steps to denuclearize. So, they think they have to try, but they're not optimistic that it will succeed.

For these reasons, the deterrence side of things becomes extremely important. If we cannot denuclearize North Korea, we really need to convince North Korea that aggressive action is bad for North Korea, and the best way to do that is to demonstrate strong bilateral alliance relationships.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping attend at a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2017.   © Reuters

Wang Yong, professor at Peking University 

Q: What is China most interested in regarding the summit?

A: Former U.S. President Donald Trump almost completely dismantled public and private frameworks for U.S.-China exchanges. China is most interested in how much of Trump's hard-line policy the Biden administration will maintain and if Japan will go along with it.

Q: The two leaders are expected to discuss Taiwan, the Uyghurs and the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. How do you expect China to respond?

A: Japan seems to have become more pro-U.S. after President Biden took office.

China-Japan relations are at a crucial point now. Bilateral ties would suffer greatly if Japan and the U.S. touch on Taiwan or Xinjiang -- topics that have to do with China's sovereignty.

China considers Taiwan and Xinjiang as core interests in its domestic policy. Mainland China and Taiwan are part of one China, and this is an extremely sensitive topic. Claims by the U.S. and Europe of so-called genocide against the Uyghur minority cannot be trusted at all.

The Japanese government should not join the U.S. government in interfering in the Taiwan or Xinjiang issues. There's concern about what sort of language will be included in the joint statement.

The Diaoyu issue should be discussed through strategic dialogue between China and Japan. The U.S. should not intervene.

Q: The U.S. has distanced itself economically from China and encouraged allies to take similar steps. How should this be handled in the summit?

A: A complete decoupling of the Chinese and U.S. economies is realistically impossible, and there have been objections from the American business world.

If the Japanese government follows the U.S. in economic measures like blocking Huawei Technologies, it will likely be to the long-term detriment of Japanese companies in the Chinese market. That is a choice that would be in no one's interest.

A seaman scans the horizon while standing on the bridge wing aboard the USS John S. McCain as the ship conducts routine underway operations on February 4.(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore's Foreign Ministry

Q: Japan and the U.S. are expected to assert the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait. How important are the waters? 

Kausikan: The Taiwan Strait is the most dangerous flashpoint in our region. If incidents occur in the South China Sea or around the Senkaku [Islands], I think it can be contained. But an incident in the Taiwan Strait can easily escalate into a direct confrontation or even conflict between the U.S. and China. If that occurs, not just ASEAN but the entire Indo-Pacific will be affected and destabilized.

Q: What message do you think Suga and Biden will send by commenting on the importance of a stable Taiwan Strait?

Kausikan: I think this is consistent with what the Americans call "strategic ambiguity" in that the phrase leaves open what their response to instability will be. It neither rules out any response or any option, nor commits them to any particular response. And this is a long-standing position.

At the same time, it also emphasizes Taiwan's importance to both countries. In fact, given Taiwan's crucial role in the semiconductor supply chain, its importance has been enhanced -- and this is also a long-standing position.

Q: China is working to legitimize its claims in the South China Sea by building up islands and establishing maritime outposts, while its negotiations with ASEAN over a Code of Conduct in the waters have stalled. What do you expect from the Japan-U.S. summit in regards to China's maritime expansion?

Kausikan: The situation in the South China Sea is a strategic stalemate. China will not give up its claims -- which have no basis in law -- and China is not going to dig up those artificial islands it has constructed. In time, China will deploy military assets on them. But China cannot deter the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, from operating in the South China Sea without risking a war it cannot win.

In fact, more and more countries are operating in the South China Sea to reject China's claims, including France, the U.K., India -- and even Germany has said it will deploy a frigate this year.

This is not an ideal solution. But it is good enough so that none of the ASEAN claimants has had to give up their claims.

The key to all this is the U.S., and it is heartening that the Biden administration clearly understands the vital and irreplaceable role of the 7th Fleet.

I expect the U.S.-Japan summit to uphold both countries' commitment to a rules-based order, and also their commitment to the freedom of navigation.

Q: Japan is working to thaw its relations with China, and has been more restrained in its criticism against Beijing compared with the U.S.  What role do you expect Japan to play in the rivalry between the U.S. and China?

Kausikan: Japan's relationship with China is complicated. It is a relationship in which economic interdependence exists alongside mistrust and concern over Chinese behavior.

Japan is an American treaty ally -- the most important treaty ally in this region -- and is playing a very valuable role to supplement the U.S. in this region.

When ASEAN says it "does not want to choose," what we mean is that we want the autonomy to pursue our interests as we choose. Sometimes some of our interests may cause us to tilt toward China, sometimes other interests may lead us to tilt toward the U.S., and sometimes our interests may lead us in the direction of Australia, or India, or Europe or some other country. We do not see any need to align all our interests in one direction.

For example, Singapore's defense and security relations with the U.S. are very close -- even closer than Thailand or the Philippines, which are formal U.S. treaty allies. But we also have close economic ties with China.

As a formal treaty ally, Japan naturally does not have the same degree of flexibility as Singapore or ASEAN. Japan's relationship with the U.S. is the anchor of the U.S. in our region and is of benefit to all of us in ASEAN.

Q: Japan and the U.S. are pushing to reshape and diversify supply chains after the pandemic highlighted the risks of depending too heavily on China. ASEAN members have welcomed businesses seeking new production bases outside of China. Do you think such developments could lead to an economic decoupling from China?

Kausikan: I don't think any country can really decouple from China, except perhaps in some specific domains where a degree of decoupling or diversification of supply chains is already occurring. This is mainly in some technological domains.

U.S.-China competition is fundamentally different from the earlier U.S.-Soviet competition. The U.S. and the Soviet Union led two separate systems that were only connected at the margins. Their competition was over which system would replace the other.

But the U.S. and China are both vital parts of a single global system. U.S.-China competition is over who will dominate that single system.

The U.S. and China and other major economies are linked together by supply chains of a scope, density and complexity never before seen in history. It will not be easy to disentangle all the many nodes in this complex web, and that is why I think complete across-the-board decoupling is impossible.

Q: Regarding the situation in Myanmar, some countries are aiming for a solution within ASEAN. What do you expect from this summit?

Kausikan: The hard reality is that nobody really has much influence over the Myanmar military and sanctions will not work. After 1988, 20 years of sanctions did not change the military's behavior and they did not move until they were ready to move.

So patience is needed, and we should not give the protesters false hope that anyone will really help them except by symbolic gestures. Who is going to intervene to fight the Myanmar military to save them? If the protesters have false hope, it will only lead to more deaths. The Myanmar military must be part of any solution, and the Myanmar military will not accept any solution that gives Aung San Suu Kyi a political role.

But sooner or later, when the military feels secure enough that it has totally neutralized Aung San Suu Kyi and stabilized the situation, they will need a ladder to climb down. ASEAN is that ladder. To play such a role, ASEAN has to be tough enough to be credible, but not so tough as to alienate the military. It's a very delicate balancing act.

Japan understands the reality of Myanmar better than the U.S., and I hope Suga will advise Biden to be patient, act wisely and not make unreasonable demands on ASEAN.

Q: Climate change has emerged as a key issue in both Japan and the U.S. What do you expect from those countries on the issue?

Kausikan: Japan and the U.S. should set an example for other countries in dealing with this existential issue for all humanity. It is also one of the few issues in which the U.S., Japan and China have common interests, and I hope you can work together on this.

In this regard, I must say that the recent decision to release radioactive wastewater from Fukushima into the ocean was a very bad decision. Perhaps what Japan intends to do is more complex than what was reported in the media, and if this is so, Japan should explain its decision more clearly. But if Japan does what the media said it is going to do, it will damage Japan's standing and influence in the region and the world.

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