Kishida and Biden in lockstep, but COVID means 2022 goals may prove elusive

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was able to tick many of the boxes on Japan’s wishlist during his virtual summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, but now the hard part begins.

The prime minister will need to buckle down for a busy year to bring that wishlist to fruition, especially if COVID-19 continues to roil his best laid plans.

Kishida and Biden held an online summit Friday after the spread of the virus’s omicron variant made in-person talks impossible. The talks, initially scheduled for one hour, lasted for 80-minutes, with the two leaders discussing a range of issues and agreeing to “push back” against China’s assertive actions in the region, cooperate to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and to work closely to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I had frank discussions with President Biden on how Japan and the United States can work together and lead the international community, and I believe that it was a very meaningful meeting that will lead to the further strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Kishida told reporters late Friday.

The allies also unveiled a plan to set up an economic version of its “two-plus-two” security ministerial meeting in what was likely the biggest item to emerge from the talks.

The launch of the bilateral Cabinet-level economic meeting, similar to security talks involving the allies’ foreign and defense chiefs, will involve Japan’s foreign and industry ministers and the U.S. secretaries of state and commerce.

It comes as Japan and other Asian nations have urged the United States to take a more active economic role in the Indo-Pacific after the administration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. It also comes as China continues to see its economic clout grow in the region.

A senior White House official said that while the economic meeting’s agenda has not been fully worked out, the expectation is that the two sides “will work in a number of areas, including export controls, but most directly in the current environment — supply chains, technology investments, and standard-setting.”

“We think those are areas that the United States and Japan can step up their game and take a much more active role in such a critical period,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Kishida has also voiced concerns about technology and Japan’s own economic security, pointing to China’s key role in global production chains — a position that Tokyo says puts its national interests at risk — and the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted shortcomings in global supply chains.

The concerns prompted Kishida to create a Cabinet-level post for economic security and saw him pledge to submit legislation on the issue to this year’s ordinary session of parliament.

Experts say Kishida and Biden appear to be in lockstep on the need for even closer cooperation on this front.

“The start of the economic two-plus-two is very welcome, especially given the rising importance of economic security in national security policy for both Japan and the U.S.,” said Robert Ward, a London-based expert on Japan at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“For Japan, this dovetails with the new economic security legislation being put together in Tokyo now, which will also be a centerpiece of the Kishida administration’s policy program for this year.”

But Japan — as well as other American allies and partners in the region — is widely seen as thirsty for more U.S. economic engagement in the region. Top Kishida administration officials have repeatedly urged Biden to consider returning to the trade agreement now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), only to be rebuffed, likely because of lack of support in U.S. Congress and among voters who fear it could cost American jobs.

Taiwanese soldiers participate in a military exercise simulating an invasion by China, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Jan. 6. | BLOOMBERG

Instead, Biden said Friday that the U.S. intends to “intensify” a new economic framework for the Indo-Pacific, which is widely expected to be revealed this year.

But, according to Ward, the U.S. economic leadership in the region would be better served by the U.S. joining the CPTPP.

Currently, the economic framework floated by Biden remains too vague to be of practical use, Ward said, noting that looming midterm congressional elections are also likely to provide even more political headwinds for the U.S. president in implementing any kind of economic plan for the region.

“Japan will continue to have to use its weight in the CPTPP and its position as the leading developed economy in RCEP to hold the line on the interests of the ‘like-minded’ in the region,” he said, referring to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — the world’s largest free-trade deal — grouping 15 nations, including China.

‘In-depth’ China talks

The Biden-Kishida summit built on two-plus-two discussions earlier this month, where the allies’ top diplomats and defense chiefs voiced strong concerns over China’s growing military might and vowed to respond if necessary to its “destabilizing activities” in the Indo-Pacific region.

In a win for Kishida, Biden accepted his invitation to travel to Japan for an official visit and take part in a meeting of “the Quad” leaders in Tokyo in late spring, the senior U.S. official told reporters. The Quad strategic dialogue groups four Asia-Pacific democracies — Japan, the U.S., India and Australia — but has been criticized by Beijing as an anti-China bloc.

During Friday’s talks, the two leaders held “very in-depth” discussions on China, including “concerns about some of the steps that China had taken across the board in terms of intimidating neighbors,” according to the senior U.S. official.

The subjects covered included China’s moves in the East and South China seas, Hong Kong, and its far-west Xinjiang region.

In what has now become a common mantra, the two leaders also agreed on the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” calling for a “peaceful” resolution of the cross-strait issue with China. Last April, Biden and then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga mentioned Taiwan in a joint statement for the first time since 1969.

Tokyo and Washington have reportedly begun work on formalizing a joint operations plan between the U.S. military and Self-Defense Forces to prepare for an emergency over the self-ruled island, with this month’s two-plus-two meeting welcoming “robust progress” on “evolving alliance roles … and on bilateral planning for contingencies.”

Kishida hinted on Friday at deeper discussions on Taiwan with Biden, saying that the pair had “spent a lot of time exchanging views on China,” but refused to reveal more details about the talks.

Tokyo’s willingness to publicly mention the Taiwan issue — and its characterization by some as one that could threaten Japan’s own security — has stoked anger in China, which regards the self-ruled island as a renegade province.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida holds virtual summit talks with U.S. President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on Friday. | CABINET PUBLIC RELATIONS OFFICE / VIA KYODO
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida holds virtual summit talks with U.S. President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on Friday. | CABINET PUBLIC RELATIONS OFFICE / VIA KYODO

Despite the growing concerns, Kishida is likely to keep the current, stable trajectory of the Sino-Japanese relationship in place, especially as Tokyo and Beijing mark 50 years of bilateral ties this year.

“Japanese policy towards China will remain pragmatic, even as the 50th anniversary provides an opportunity for some useful diplomatic (public relations),” said IISS’s Ward. “The strong attention given to security issues by Kishida suggests a strong element of continuity in Japanese China policy. So, no shift by Kishida to a more friendly stance, I suspect.”

Whatever the case, Japan will need to strike a balance in its relationship with its ally, the U.S., and China, its top trading partner.

“Japan will have to walk a fine line in its alliance politics, backing the U.S. in its commitment to the defense of Taiwan and its own security interests in the region, which also include economic cooperation with China for example in form of RCEP,” said Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University.

Striking back?

The idea to hold the virtual summit was reportedly broached by the U.S. side, with the allies judging that a recent spate of North Korean missile tests, as well as a growing list of pending issues, necessitated early talks, including on regional strategy going forward.

On Thursday, North Korea said it may bolster its defenses against the United States and consider restarting “all temporally-suspended activities” — an apparent reference to a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests.

The announcement came after the North launched two apparent ballistic missiles on Jan. 17 as the nuclear-armed country continues to test weapons capable of evading missile defenses at a frenetic pace in 2022.

That pace of testing has heightened concerns in Tokyo, with top officials including Kishida and defense chief Nobuo Kishi openly suggesting Japan acquire a so-called strike capability as a deterrent to potential attacks as part of revisions to its National Security Strategy (NSS) set for later this year.

Such a move would represent a major shift for the country’s defense posture and would likely appeal to U.S. defense planners in terms of fulfilling Japan’s promise to bolster its defenses.

Japan is due to complete a review of the country’s long-term diplomacy and defense strategy within the year, including the update of its NSS for the first time ever and a revision to its National Defense Program Guidelines, which detail key defense policy challenges and how they will be tackled over a 10-year period, and its Mid-Term Defense Program, which outlines five-year plans for defense spending.

During their talks, Biden and Kishida vowed to “further strengthen the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday, adding that Kishida had “expressed his determination to fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defense capabilities” by revising the country’s three main diplomacy and defense documents.

Biden, the statement added, “expressed his support” for these moves “and underscored the importance of sustaining vital investments in defense over time.”

Observers say that by gaining Biden’s understanding on the issue during their talks, Kishida hopes to use it as a driving force for further discussions on the possibility of acquiring a strike capability in the NSS revisions.

A North Korean
A North Korean “hypersonic” missile is launched at an undisclosed location in the country on Jan. 11. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

COVID takes precedence

But exactly how the goals and commitments laid out during the summit ultimately play out will hinge on the coronavirus situation in both countries, especially Japan.

On Saturday, Japan topped 50,000 daily COVID-19 cases for the first time as the omicron variant rampages across the country, while the U.S. reported upwards of 700,000 new infections per day last week.

Experts say that the unpredictable fight against the virus, as well as a looming election scheduled for the summer in Japan, are likely to put more crucial diplomatic and security decisions on the backburner until the situation stabilizes.

“With Upper House elections this summer, I think it’s safe to say that foreign policy will not be Kishida’s main priority, as he will be committed to his economic ‘new capitalism’ reform agenda and Japan’s battle against corona,” said Maslow of Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University.

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