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Japan's ticket to Oval Office is no new 'special relationship'

Fleeting as cherry blossoms? Experts wonder if Biden-Suga bromance will last

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, participates in the virtual Quad summit with Japan, India and Australia in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 12. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

WASHINGTON -- At the dawn of the Cold War, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expounded on the "special relationship" between his country and the U.S.

"Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization, will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples," Churchill said in his famous "Iron Curtain" speech of 1946.

Three-quarters of a century later, Sino-American tensions define the times. It is in this context that Japan may appear to have been placed in the role once occupied by the U.K.

U.S. President Joe Biden is to receive Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House next Friday. Suga will be the first world leader to meet in person with Biden in his nearly 3-month-old presidency.

The honor will go not to "fraternal" ally Great Britain or northern neighbor Canada, but to Asian ally Japan.

It follows a "two-plus-two" meeting in Tokyo last month, the first face-to-face engagement with foreign counterparts by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Officials in Tokyo are thrilled about the special treatment granted by the superpower, especially considering the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Suga's government, which has come under fire at home over its handling of COVID-19, could receive a welcome boost to its political capital.

But should Japan's status as special ally to America be taken at face value? Japan's heightened prominence belies the difficulties shouldered by the Biden administration.

A charitable spin is that Washington sees Tokyo as a highly reliable partner. A harsher interpretation is that Japan is a convenient ally.

Cherry blossoms in front of Washington's Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Is the U.S.-Japan honeymoon fleeting like the sakura? (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy Tokyo)

"It's very fleeting -- it's like cherry blossoms," said Joshua Walker, president of the New York-headquartered Japan Society. "It's very beautiful but only for a period of time."

"If you don't help the roots grow and if you don't keep on gardening," those petals will soon be lost, he said: "They need to come out every year."

Walker warned that Japan should not misinterpret America's eagerness to engage at the official level as a sign that this will continue forever. "Americans change course very quickly, like when a war happens, when there's a terrorist attack, there's a pandemic," he said.

"Right now, U.S.-Japan relations are right in the center, but if there's a storm, suddenly we can move somewhere else," Walker said.

Biden faces a host of obstacles in foreign affairs. Immediate predecessor Donald Trump left key diplomatic posts unfilled. From China to North Korea and the global force posture, the new administration is conducting a comprehensive policy review.

European allies have struggled to control surging coronavirus cases. German Chancellor Angela Merkel backtracked on imposing a lockdown over Easter after enduring a firestorm of criticism. French President Emmanuel Macron's approval rating is languishing ahead of the 2022 election.

"America is back," Biden declared to allies in February, but there is no guarantee that he will win reelection in 2024. In that light, Europe will continue to stay the course of "strategic autonomy," in the words of Macron.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in's ruling Democratic Party has lost mayoral races in Seoul and Busan. To the U.S., Japan is an ally that offers little in the way of risk and much in the way of diplomatic reward.

"If China is the 'pacing threat' for the United States today, Japan is the 'pacing ally,'" said Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, headquartered in Washington.

"They're the ally that can do the most," he said. "And that's not just true in the security area."

"It's also been true on economics, on technology, and broader governance issues," Cooper said.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a mechanism for Japan, the U.S., India and Australia to bolster stability in the Indo-Pacific, was originally initiated by Tokyo. Japan is also a key contributor to American efforts to build less China-dependent supply chains in semiconductors, electric-car batteries and other critical items. The countries see significant room for cooperation on climate change as well.

But many American experts question just how special the U.S. considers its relations with Japan to be.

The Biden administration has many connections to Europe, such as Blinken having spent part of his childhood in France. But few of its senior members have extensive expertise in Japan, with the exception of Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council.

China has emerged as a touchstone for bilateral relations. The Biden administration considers the U.S. rivalry with China a battle between democracy and autocracy. Blinken traded barbs with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi at their late-March meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

Japan has made clear that it stands with U.S. on this issue. Days before Anchorage, at the two-plus-two gathering, Tokyo and Washington had agreed on a joint statement sharply criticizing China over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, among other issues.

Japan crossed the Rubicon with the statement, a source familiar with the matter said.

At a time when China is dismantling Hong Kong's autonomy and threatening Taiwan's democracy, it is inevitable that Japan and the U.S. will deepen their partnerships with fellow democracies in Europe and Asia.

But the more Washington and Tokyo showcase the unity of their alliance, the more Tokyo's careful middle ground between the U.S. and China will be thrown out of balance.

Besides its issues with Beijing, the Biden administration is also stepping up criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin on human rights. China is working to win over Middle Eastern countries including Iran in what appears to be preparation for a new Cold War with global democracies.

The relationship between the U.S. and China has shifted into a struggle over the nature of their countries, said Satohiro Akimoto, president of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, headquartered in Washington.

"The question is whether Japan can show enough determination for that," he said.

China will very likely seek to rattle or threaten Japan either militarily or economically. "Japan needs to consider its strategy on how to respond to China, theoretically over the next 20 to 30 years" but realistically 10, Akimoto said. The U.S. had not been able to do so but has now started to, he said.

Mireya Solis, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Washington-headquartered Brookings Institution, warned against "missed opportunities" caused by a lack of a proactive trade strategy within the Biden administration.

It has given no indication that it will return the U.S. to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, despite Biden's pledge during the presidential election campaign to "set the rules of the road" on trade.

"I think, at the end of the day, the U.S. has to be increasing integration, connectivity, economic opportunity, for the region," Solis said. "So that's still the big gap and goal."

"It's not going to be solved by the leaders' summit, but I would hope that Prime Minister Suga begins to send that message -- how important this is to the American president," Solis said.

"It will be in these international meetings -- and there will be more throughout the year -- where it is important for leaders in the region to send a message that this is indeed a major handicap of the U.S. diplomacy in Asia," she said.

The Japan-U.S. summit is no longer an afterthought. It should be used to create an opening for serious efforts to strengthen cooperation between the two allies.

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