Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during the virtual summit of the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., a group known as “the Quad", at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan.
Tanzina Vega: As we continue our look at foreign policy under the Biden administration, we turn now to Asia. This week, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is visiting D.C., making him the first foreign head of state to meet with President Biden. Recently, territorial and political disputes between China and Japan have only escalated.
With the US siding with Japan, this week's meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Suga can be seen as a signal towards a broader approach to the region by the United States. Motoko Rich is the Japan Bureau Chief for The New York Times and we spoke with her on Friday morning before the summit. Let's break down what exactly is China doing that is warranting this response? We'll start by taking a look at the Senkaku islands, what's happening there?
Motoko Rich: These islands, in some ways, it's curious because they're basically a pile of rocks. It's a string of very small uninhabited islands and there's some value to them in terms of the fishing rights around them, but they are more symbolic in a lot of ways than a matter of reality, but they are disputed territory. Japan claims the islands and calls them Senkakus. China also claims them as their own and calls them the Diaoyudao and they have been fighting over them for a long time.
At the moment, the US recognizes Japan's ability to administer these islands such as they are. China sends boats into water territory or waters that are contiguous with territorial waters as a kind of goosing exercise to say we're here and where we're nudging around and Japan doesn't like that. Japan has sought numerous times reassurance with the United States, as its most important ally, that the treaty between the two countries does cover protection on these islands in the event that China should try to invade them.
From time to time, it seems like there's a possibility of an actual conflict arising in that the boats of the Chinese are coming more frequently or staying longer in the territorial waters or contiguous waters. That's been what the escalation has been there. That's in particular relation to Japan, but there's a lot more going on across the region and so the United States is not only interested in talking to Japan about protecting Japan's territorial rights, but also partnering with Japan to create a sense of a bulwark against China's increasing influence and military assertiveness around the region.
Tanzina: What about what's happening in the Taiwan Strait?
Motoko Rich: There, again, the Chinese who regard Taiwan as a rogue territory and Taiwan is a small democratic island and for a long time, as you know the United States has had this approach known as strategic ambiguity, where they don't officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country, but as part of one China, but the mainland Chinese government has been sending war planes to fly near the shores.
Again, buzzing exercise to say we're here and obviously trying to send a somewhat threatening military message and Secretary of State, Blinken, and Secretary of Defense, Austin came to Japan, they put out a statement in which they said, "We recognize the importance of democracy at the Taiwan Strait and that there should not be a military invasion." The question that's going to come up during this summit this week between the two leaders of Japan and the United States is, again, whether they will express some kind of support for Taiwan.
Tanzina: Motoko, what is expected from the summit this week?
Motoko Rich: I think one of the interesting things to watch when we talk about China is that while Japan and the United States have a lot of shared interests in holding back China as its power is rising the region, they also have some differences. The United States under the Biden administration has come out quite strongly criticizing China for its human rights violations in the treatment of the Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province whereas Japan has not been quite as explicit about that.
There's also a little bit of daylight between the two countries in how they have talked about the coup in Myanmar that Americans have imposed sanctions against the generals. Japan has not imposed any kind of economic sanctions and so there will probably be some kinds of conversations about how they might get a little bit closer in terms of how they comment on human rights violations in the region, but there are many other topics that they have to talk about. One of the big ones is climate change.
The Biden administration has already said that they want to rejoin the Paris Agreement. There'd probably be some discussion with Japan about how both countries might change and improve their targets for 2030. Both countries have talked a lot about their efforts to reduce carbon emissions so there might be discussion about how they might cooperate on technology, renewable energy.
There may be some talk about trade. There's also probably going to be talk about how they can secure supply chains for really important components like semiconductors, which are important from anything, from all kinds of electronics to cars. There's a global shortage of semiconductors at the moment and it's in the interest of both countries to ensure a supply and not be entirely dependent on China for that supply.
They have a lot of issues to talk about, but it's unlikely to be some tension-filled summit. As you pointed out, this is the first foreign leader to visit the Biden White House and so for Japan, it's a diplomatic feather in their cap to be the first, but they're not going to be fighting over anything. This is, in some ways, a courtesy visit to reassure each other that they're still on the same page and that the alliance between the two that has endured since the end of World War II remain strong.
Tanzina: Remind us, is there any repair work to be done here, Motoko, given if you could remind us what President Trump's relationship with Japan was under his administration?
Motoko Rich: That's a really excellent and interesting question because in some ways Japan and the United States grew very close under the Trump administration because of the personal relationship that the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe worked really hard to develop that. He read the psychology of President Trump and showered him with flattery, invited him for two visits to Japan.
The second one was official state visit in which he was the first foreign leader to meet the new emperor. They cultivated this very close relationship. There was a period early on where they were talking on the phone three or four times a week about North Korea policy and all kinds of things. I think there was a little bit of a concern when Biden won the presidential election, whether or not that personal relationship would disappear.
Of course, Japan now has its own new leader in Yoshihide Suga and so he's going to be looking to develop this personal relationship, but I think there's also a little bit of relief that on the other hand, they're not dealing with a mercurial leader who might change his policy decisions in the moment of a tweet, not really dealing with someone who is threatening to impose tariffs at any moment, or is out there demanding that they pay more for their own defense. It's much more of a measured collaborative approach.
Tanzina: Motoko Rich is the Japan Bureau Chief for The New York Times. Motoko thanks so much for joining us.
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