Harsh Words from U.S. Forces Japan into Dilemma
United Daily News, April 17, 2021
A scene in 2016 left quite the impression: then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting then President-elect Donald Trump, a private citizen still. To have made contact so early with the future president speaks to Abe’s keen diplomatic sense. Fast forward to today, the current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited the White House on April 16 and became the first foreign leader to be greeted by the latest American president. This too was regarded by the Japanese public as a "victory of Japanese diplomacy."
For Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who faces re-election in September, the summit is a much-needed boost to lukewarm public opinion. However, it is not without cost. For the meeting, the United States requested Taiwan’s security issues be included in the summit’s agenda and the joint statement.
The United States got what it asked for. The U.S.-Japan joint statement announced by the White House emphasized the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the peaceful settlement of the Taiwan Strait issue. At the joint press conference, Suga took the initiative to express that the two sides have had in-depth discussions on China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region and its impact on global peace and prosperity. Both the United States and Japan oppose any attempts to change the status quo of the East China Sea and the South China Sea by force, coercion, or intimidation. In response to inquiries, Suga said with regards to the regional situation, that they also discussed Taiwan and Xinjiang. Japan and the United States agree on the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and take this opportunity to reiterate it.
The words are very conservative and indirect, but the United States has taken great pains to force a statement from Japan outright. Kurt Campbell, director of the Indo-Pacific Affairs Coordination of the National Security Council, went covertly to Tokyo for this reason, employing more forceful language—that if the Taiwan issue is not on the table, it must make plain to the United States why that is. Importantly, he made clear that it would be unfortunate for Japan to raise U.S. suspicions on where the countries stand.
Japan often takes issue with China in private, speaking to the United States about issues including the Taiwan Strait, human rights in Xinjiang and events in Hong Kong. The United States on the other hand wants Japan to speak out openly. However, there is opposition within Japan on this front, with concerns around how it will affect the Olympics and Sino-Japanese economic relations.
The United States further wants Japan to commit to military cooperation. Where does Japan stand if China does in fact mobilize against Taiwan?
According to Kyodo News, at the two-plus-two meeting of the defense ministers of the United States and Japan, the Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi stated that it is necessary to discuss "what kind of assistance the Self-Defense Forces can provide to American military in support of Taiwan." According to the new security law passed during the Abe period, when a country that has a "close relationship" with Japan "is under attack," Japan can exercise its right to collective self-defense and send its Self-Defense Forces to assist.
In other words, the United States wants to know what it can expect from Japan in a possible military crisis. The answer to this is probably the most difficult thing for Japan to elaborate upon and it has always kept its position vague. If the U.S. insists that Suga speak plainly, Japan’s diplomatic equilibrium with China and the United States will be broken.
When China learned that Japan might talk about the Taiwan issue at the summit, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi had a 90-minute telephone call with Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi on April 5. Wang expressed the hope that Japan as an independent country will view China’s development objectively and rationally and not to be misled by bias. He also requested Japan abide by the basic norms of international relations, as a close neighbor, to maintain a minimum of respect for China’s internal affairs, and not to stretch its arms out too long.
This was a most important message that was delivered over the phone and represents “a red line" drawn by Wang to Japan. Although neither of them mentioned Taiwan directly, Wang’s words revealed a warning from the Chinese side. Japan is now worried about how Beijing will react.
As for the Xinjiang, Japan has always tended to keep a low profile on human rights issues. It is the only G7 country that has not imposed sanctions on China due to the Xinjiang issue. The United States has requested that Japan keep pace with its Western allies, but Japan is very cautious.
Suga publicly stated at the press conference that he had explained to Biden Japan’s position and views on Xinjiang and believes that Biden can understand. American officials also said in a background briefing the day before that peace and stability of Taiwan Strait will be included in the joint statement. On the issues of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japan has its own position—the United States will not force upon but merely share its views with Japan.
On these fronts, Japan and the United States have different positions. If Japan imposes sanctions on Xinjiang, it naturally worries that China will counter-sanction against Japan. The United States has less of such concerns, but hopes that its economic supply chain can be "detached from dependence on China." In contrast, Japan does not want to decouple its economy with the largest economic locomotive in the world. With China becoming Japan's largest trading partner, it can effectively help Japan's economic recovery after the epidemic.
What's more, once the conflict between the United States and China rises to the military level, the United States will impose economic sanctions on China and require Japan to join. It can be expected that China will retaliate and Japan’s economy will be impacted on an unprecedented level. Therefore, Japan hopes that the United States can maintain strong intimidation and deterrence against China but not escalate beyond it.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations. When Abe was in power, he had hoped to arrange for Xi’s visit to Japan to complete the last part of high-level exchange visits. However, first due to the epidemic and now because of the confrontation between the United States and China, mutual trust between China and Japan is lacking—and the last mile has been made more difficult.