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Biden's Asia policy

Taiwan, climate and chips on the agenda of Suga-Biden summit

Japanese PM will be first foreign leader to hold in-person talks with new US president

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga waves as he departs Tokyo's Haneda Airport on a flight to Washington to meet U.S. President Joe Biden. (Photo by Yo Inoue)

TOKYO -- As Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga flew to Washington to become the first foreign leader to meet U.S. President Joe Biden in person, the two treaty allies were still hammering out the finer details of the talks.

"I want to cultivate trust with Mr. Biden, and further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance by which we are united by the universal values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law," Suga told reporters in Tokyo before departure on Thursday evening. "To realize a free and open Indo-Pacific, I want to demonstrate to the world the leadership of Japan and the U.S."

The summit has taken months to arrange because of the pandemic and the unusually contentious issues at stake. It stands in contrast to the hastily arranged first meeting between his predecessor Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump, just over a week after the previous president's election victory in 2016.

"We have been facing many challenges in substance and logistics," said a Japanese foreign ministry official on Wednesday. "The state of the alliance was strengthened under the previous administration, but this new administration suddenly has a different agenda."

Synchronizing security and economic policies is the main goal for the two countries in this summit, but the field between what Biden wants and what Japan is willing to give is scattered with landmines for Suga.

"The first thing for any Japanese prime minister is just to show that they're capable stewards of the relationship," said Tobias Harris, Japan analyst at consultancy firm Teneo. "The Biden administration really seems to want to use this to send some pretty clear signals."

Perhaps most ominously for Suga, the White House has reportedly pushed for a joint statement to include support for Taiwan, which is increasingly threatened by Chinese air incursions. The democratically governed island has not been addressed in a U.S.-Japan leaders' statement since 1969, but foreign and defense ministers emphasized the "importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait" in their 2+2 meeting in Tokyo last month.

"China hopes that Japan, as an independent country, will look at China's development in an objective and rational way instead of being misled by some countries holding biased views against China," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after an April 5 phone call with his Japanese counterpart.

Biden would like to see Japan align with the U.S., Canada, U.K. and the European Union, which have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, as well as on military coup leaders in Myanmar. Tokyo, meanwhile, prefers to maintain communication and influence with Beijing and Naypyidaw.

"I think there will be a serious discussion about the role of values in the alliance, something that clearly the U.S. is looking at in China's human rights violations in Xinjiang and violation of treaty oaths in Hong Kong," said Scott Harold, senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation.

It will be a hard deliverable for Japan, which does not have a Magnitsky-type law to impose sanctions for human rights abuses like its Group of 7 peers. Also off limits for Tokyo is a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, as Japan struggles to stage its own Games this summer.

"The China hawks have the upper hand right now, but it wasn't so long ago that they were trying to get [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to come to Japan," Harris said.

Suga will arrive in Washington as the prime minister who set Japan on an ambitious goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, an appealing bonafide to the climate-centric Biden administration. Nikkei reported that Japan was considering ending government support for overseas coal power plants, as part of a bilateral climate initiative to be announced at the Friday summit.

Suga and Biden are also expected to agree on securing supply chains for advanced technology and addressing the global shortage of semiconductors. With American companies competing with Chinese rivals for Taiwanese chip supplies, Japan and the U.S. are looking at joint research and development and production.

Japanese officials expect "no pressure" from Biden to mend Tokyo's relationship with Seoul. Reparations for Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II and so-called comfort women have been repeatedly addressed, but returned to the forefront since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017.

"The Moon administration has already made much more positive signals," said Harold. "A demand signal from Washington for trilateral cooperation can move key actors in those two countries."

While issues such as Trump-era tariffs on Japanese steel and autos "might be too specific for the two leaders to discuss in detail," trade is at the top of Japan's priorities for the meeting. Returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era initiative to set trade rules in China's backyard but was abandoned by Trump, is a domestic nonstarter for the Biden administration.

"After the U.S. withdrawal from TPP, we need to think very seriously about how we realize multilateral, high-standard trade rules in this region," said a Japanese foreign ministry official.

The prime minister's entourage of 80, a third of the usual number, will be confined to the White House and their Washington hotel. All have been vaccinated, according to the foreign ministry, even as Japan struggles to secure Pfizer doses and inoculate more of its population.

Biden's 60% approval rating will cushion him from pressure on Friday, but Suga's chances of using his U.S. trip to score political points may be dashed by rising COVID infections at home.

"Any talk that he was going to convert this summit into a snap election seems a lot harder to believe, with the case numbers where they are right now," said Harris.

Such COVID precautions will limit the two leader's chances to feel each other out, but Suga and Biden's interactions will be less dependent on personality than Abe and Trump's golf summits.

"Personal diplomacy was useful in that situation, but with the Biden administration, that's just not as necessary," Harris said. "Suga's not a golfer, he's not going to be the same kind of personal diplomat that Abe was -- but that's okay."

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