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International relations

Suga to face make-or-break moment during Biden summit

Pitfalls abound as Japan's PM travels to Washington for April 16 meeting

Japan says Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, will meet U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington after the Japanese entourage is fully vaccinated.   © AP

TOKYO -- When the leaders of Japan and the U.S. hold a summit in Washington on April 16, the meeting will be seen as a test of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's diplomatic skills, an area that his critics say is a weakness.

Summits between the two countries greatly affected the fate of many governments in postwar Japan. Will Suga, who took office in September and will take part in his first summit as Japan's leader, be able to take the big stage in stride?

An expression commonly used by journalists in analysis of diplomacy is "certain achievements but heavy burdens." Summits are rarely off-the-cuff affairs as officials lay in-depth groundwork ahead of the meetings. In other words, "certain achievements" are prepared well ahead of time.

Nevertheless, countries do not completely share national interests no matter how close relations are. The more attractively decorated agreements are, the more stark the differences hidden behind them that may subsequently weigh on governments. The differences deserve close attention as well.

More than half of Japanese prime ministers over the past half century chose the U.S. as their first official trips overseas. Japanese leaders' visit to the U.S. is thus ridiculed as sankin kotai, or alternate residence duty, during the Tokugawa shogunate. But it is a fact that Japanese prime ministers have been able to stabilize their power by establishing honeymoon relations with U.S. presidents.

Toshiki Kaifu became prime minister during the 1989 stocks-for-favors Recruit scandal, which forced heavyweights in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to take a back seat. Kaifu, like Suga, lacked a strong power base in the LDP because he was not an intraparty faction leader. Although his term was expected to be brief, Kaifu stayed in power for more than two years as he often touted his closeness to then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush, symbolized by the term "Bush phone" coined for their frequent telephone conversations.

Morihiro Hosokawa presented an opposite case. A meeting in Washington in February 1994 between Hosokawa and former President Bill Clinton ended in a bust, with the U.S. declaring trade talks to be over. Though the outcome was partly attributed to the meeting being held during the toughest moment of Japan-U.S. trade friction, Clinton even referred to the need for steering the yen higher in value as a tit-for-tat, dealing an additional blow to an already-suffering Japanese economy.

Although Hosokawa boasted the meeting as establishing an "adult relationship" that exchanged honest opinions, his cabinet's approval rating plunged after the summit and he resigned two months later.

While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out Clinton's stern view of Hosokawa, the premier received information from a media organization that the president supported the Hosokawa cabinet and would seek to take whatever possible by bluffing to the end but eventually step back, according to a memoir he wrote based on a diary he kept while in office as prime minister. Hosokawa also quoted the information as saying that "the White House seems to have confirmed a policy of avoiding a collapse of Japan-U.S. relations."

Aware of those cases, Suga was eager to hold a Japan-U.S. summit meeting first of all. In a nationally televised interview in December, Suga said he wanted to visit the U.S. "in February, if possible." The remark caught U.S. President Joe Biden's presidential transition team off guard as it planned to hold off on inviting foreign leaders until the spread of COVID-19 infections subsided.

When Shinzo Abe returned as prime minister for a second term in December 2012, Suga, as his chief cabinet secretary, sought a similar arrangement, recommending Abe's early visit to the U.S. He urged the Foreign Ministry to work the visit into former President Barack Obama's schedule as soon as possible.

But Obama did not immediately respond to the Japanese request, and it wasn't until February 2013 that Abe met with the U.S. president. Many lawmakers of the ruling camp heard Suga speak harshly of Obama because of the delay.

It is easy to imagine, therefore, how badly Suga wants to meet Biden after his longer wait.

Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Abe met Donald Trump even before his inauguration. The exceptional meeting was arranged by Masashi Adachi, an LDP lawmaker of the upper house, under Suga's special instruction. Adachi now serves as an assistant to the prime minister.

Various events are held before and after a summit meeting. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi threw a ceremonial first pitch for a Major League Baseball game, while Abe delivered a speech to the U.S. Congress and played golf with Trump.

Ahead of Suga's visit, the U.S. Senate will adopt a bipartisan resolution to honor the strength of the alliance between Japan and the U.S. as proposed by Sen. William Hagerty, a Republican and former ambassador to Japan.

Such a resolution is not rare. In November, for example, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution to mark the U.S.-South Korea alliance. But it will serve as an excellent opportunity to set the mood for Suga's visit.

Word is circulating that a new ambassador to Japan will be introduced at a joint press conference between Suga and Biden. The direct introduction of a person to assume the post, which has been vacant since July 2019, to Suga by Biden may well cause a buzz stronger than usual.

Now that the Senate has confirmed Biden's cabinet members, the administration is shifting to the appointment of ambassadors. Candidates for the ambassadors to China and Japan reportedly include Rahm Emanuel, a former mayor of Chicago who served as Obama's chief of staff.

Of ambassadors to Japan over the past half a century, John Schiefer was appointed in March and Michael Mansfield and Michael Armacost in April. The possibility of announcing a new ambassador to Japan at a Suga-Biden press conference, therefore, cannot be ruled out.

There are few high hurdles that may present themselves at the talks between Suga and Biden. While Trump strained ties between the U.S. and many of its allies through his "America first" approach, Biden has sought to reestablish those ties and may seek to use the Japan-U.S. relationship as a symbol of rebuilt alliances.

Faced with Chinese ship incursions into waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyu, Japan has sought to have the U.S. recognize a deterioration in the region even before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. As if to live up to Japan's expectation, Biden said in a February speech that "American leadership must meet ... the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States."

Biden has referred to the reinforcement of ties between the U.S. and its allies as a way to containing China. In line with Biden's policy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first official overseas trip to Japan and South Korea, underscoring the importance the U.S. administration places on the region.

The summit between Biden and Suga is expected to adhere to a joint statement issued following the March 16 meeting between the Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense ministers, or 2-plus-2 meetings. It may be fair to assume that "big achievements," rather than "certain achievements," will come out of the summit.

One source of uncertainty is the possibility of the Biden administration taking a tougher stance than Japan on China. At their telephone conference in January, Suga had been the one to express concern about China to Biden.

America's hard-line against China, which was established by Trump, was on full display at a high-level meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials in the U.S. state of Alaska last month, when opening remarks turned into an exchange of blunt words, with each side accusing the other of human rights abuses among other things. 

Following the heated exchange, the European Union imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over alleged abuses against China's mostly Muslim Uyghur minority.

As a result, Japan is the sole member of the Group of Seven major economies that has yet to slap sanctions on China. Japan has traditionally avoided poking its nose deeply into human rights problems in other countries.

During Suga's trip to Washington, concerns about China's military expansion and human rights violations will likely come up. Suga could find himself in a precarious position if Biden asks whether Japan will join other G-7 members with sanctions against China. More than a few members of Japan's ruling party have close ties with China.

A question that may become more burdensome than the problem of human rights is how extensively Japan should be involved if an emergency arises in the Taiwan Strait.

Past agreements reached at the Japan-U.S. 2-plus-2 meetings voiced concern about China's behaviors in the East and South China seas. But the question of Taiwan has been brushed aside, except a 2005 mention when tensions in the strait ran high. Japan has sought to steer clear of infringing of the "One China" accord reached when Tokyo and Beijing normalized diplomatic relations.

The 2-plus-2 agreement in 2005 between Japan and the U.S. declared a "common strategic objective" in the peaceful solution of issues in the Taiwan Strait.

The joint statement issued on the occasion of the 2-plus-2 meeting in March said, "The ministers underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."

The statement is not very different from that of 2005. But now that Japan has partially lifted the ban on the use of its right for collective self-defense, it will need to examine whether an emergency in the Taiwan Strait will pertain to "an armed attack against foreign country resulting in threatening Japan's survival," a condition set in security-related legislation to allow Japan to exercise the right.

A question is whether Suga braced himself for the debate when he backed the joint statement. Some lawmakers in the ruling camp recall Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki's mishandled reference to the Japan-U.S. alliance in the early 1980s, fearing Suga will suffer the same fate.

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