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International relations

Japan and US to single out China at '2-plus-2' meeting

Allies plan to take stronger stance in meeting of top security officials

A China Coast Guard vessel sails near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture on Feb. 15.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The foreign and defense ministers of Japan and the U.S. meet for their "two-plus-two" dialogue early next week, when they are expected to release a joint statement that explicitly expresses concern over China's repeated incursions into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China.

Washington and Tokyo plan to expand cooperation on China. President Joe Biden's administration faces a sharpened rivalry with Beijing over security and technology issues.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The last two-plus-two meeting was in Washington in April 2019. This will be the first cabinet-level visit to Japan by U.S. officials since Biden took office in January.

The most important topic of the meeting is likely to be strengthening deterrence against China. The four ministers will reaffirm that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which obligates the U.S. to defend Japan, applies to the Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu. They will also express concern about the Coast Guard Law that China enacted in February, which positions the China Coast Guard as a paramilitary organization.

The Japan-U.S. two-plus-two dialogue is the top bilateral consultative body on security policy. So far, however, it has not explicitly singled out China's maritime expansion for criticism. Both Japan and the U.S. depend on China for their supply chains, and the U.S. has tried to avoid having tensions spill over into the economy.

The joint statement from the 2019 dialogue expressed "serious concern about, and strong opposition to, unilateral coercive attempts to alter the status quo in the East China Sea." This was an oblique reference by the ministers to China's maritime expansion. The joint statement from the 2017 dialogue also did not name China, mentioning only that Japan and the U.S. would work together for the "the peace and stability of the East China Sea."

The joint statement from the upcoming two-plus-two meeting will send a clear message to China highlighting the change in thinking. On March 3, the Biden administration produced an outline of its national security strategy that named China as the only competitor that challenges the international order in all respects, including economically and technologically. It stressed that the U.S. will work to shape new international norms and agreements.

The administration also announced a policy to review supply chains for semiconductors, batteries and rare earths, all products for which the U.S. depends on China. An executive order signed by Biden in February states that the U.S. will work with allies and increase procurement from Australia, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. It will also encourage greater domestic production.

On Feb. 23, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby criticized the China Coast Guard's intrusions into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, saying they "could lead to miscalculation and potential physical and material harm."

Cooperation with Japan is essential to the Biden administration's hard-line strategy toward China. The U.S. stance is also a boon for Japan, which is facing repeated incursions into the contiguous zone and territorial waters around the Senkakus. China's new Coast Guard Law, which authorizes the use of force, has heightened tension within the Japan Coast Guard, which patrols these waters.

Japan sees the two-plus-two meeting as a good chance to send the message that the U.S. is involved beyond the "contingency" of applying Article 5 of the Security Treaty. Foreign and defense officials from the two governments exchanged views on China's Coast Guard Law during an online conference on March 4, sharing serious concerns.

The two sides are also planning to express concern about the situation in Hong Kong and Uyghur human rights issues in Xinjiang. They will also discuss North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, and defense cooperation in new areas, such as space and cybersecurity.

Japan and the U.S. will also make use of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. The first summit will be held online Friday to discuss security cooperation. Leaders will explore cooperation on vaccines to combat the novel coronavirus as a way to counter China's "vaccine diplomacy," through which Beijing supplies its domestically developed vaccines to other countries.

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