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Biden's Asia policy

Biden and Suga to note Taiwan Strait in April joint statement

East Asia power shift toward China prompts first such mention since 1969

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, is expected to visit Washington in April for a summit with President Joe Biden. (Source photos by Taro Yokosawa and AP)

TOKYO -- Japan and the U.S. plan to affirm the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visits Washington next month for a summit with President Joe Biden, Nikkei has learned.

The two sides are in discussions to include the passage on Taiwan in a joint statement after the summit. Both countries also intend to take a unified stance opposing China's new law empowering the coast guard.

Such a statement on Taiwan would mark a rare public expression of concern by U.S. and Japanese leaders. The last time was 1969, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon stressed in a statement that Taiwan's security is crucial for Japan's security.

The new concern reflects the sense of urgency among the allies toward the shifting power balance in East Asia. When U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Japanese Defense Ministry in Tokyo on March 16, his counterpart Nobuo Kishi noted that China's defense spending has now grown to 16 times that of Taiwan.

Later, when the defense chiefs attended a "two-plus-two" meeting alongside U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, they "underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," according to a joint statement issued after the meeting.

Taiwan has gained new prominence since Adm. Philip Davidson, who heads the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told a congressional hearing in early March that he thought China could take military action to control Taiwan in the next six years. The admiral's concerns over the erosion of conventional deterrence against China sent ripples across the Japanese defense community.

China possesses 1,250 fighter planes, five times more than what the U.S. military has in the region. That discrepancy will grow to eightfold by 2025, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command estimates. As for warships, the gap is expected to grow to ninefold from the current fivefold.

Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said China might attempt a landing on the Taiwan-administered Taiping Island in the South China Sea.

An aerial view of Taiping Island in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

Taiping is 1,600 km from Taiwan's main island, and it would take time for Taipei's defense forces to conduct a rescue operation. The U.S. response is also expected to be slower than in an attack on Taiwan's main island.

"China could use such a military operation to put psychological pressure on Taiwan," as part of an operation aimed at reunification, Ohara said.

Tensions are escalating in the sea near Taiwan. On Monday, China sent 10 military aircraft -- including Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-16 fighters -- into Taiwan's air defense identification zone, the island's Defense Ministry said.

The incursions are likely a response to U.S. Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland accompanying Palau President Surangel Whipps on Sunday for a visit to Taiwan -- the first trip to Taiwan by a sitting American ambassador since Washington and Taipei severed diplomatic relations in 1979.

This visit comes after what the Defense Ministry in Taipei called the largest incursion of its ADIZ by the Chinese military on Friday, involving 20 aircraft.

Biden has made his stance on China clear.

"They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That's not gonna happen on my watch," Biden said on Thursday.

Beijing enacted a law in February that positions the country's coast guard as a quasi-military organization authorized to fire at foreign ships in areas that China regards as its own. Chinese vessels conduct frequent incursions near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls Diaoyu.

The two leaders are expected to confirm that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus. They also will showcase their commitment to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Additional reporting by Shunsuke Shigeta in Tokyo.

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