Biden’s Trip to Asia – Part 3

Alessandro Ponzetto | May 25th, 2022

After the focus on Taiwan, given the renewed interest on the matter due to Biden’s remarks, we wrap up the coverage of the trip by looking at the Japanese leg of the journey. Small note: we will not cover IPEF in detail today, as it deserves a dedicated piece (most likely next Monday, due to certain events we will briefly mention today).

Meeting with Kishida

Before the Quad meeting, President Biden met with Prime Minister Kishida, where he made the remarks regarding Taiwan. There is however much more than this, as we will see while summarising the joint statement.

To start with, the focus was on Russia and on the reactions we have seen within the UN bodies. This is of particular importance because Japan has been advocating for a reform of the UN Security Council, together with India, that will drastically reshape how that particular body functions. On this, President Biden focused on giving Japan a permanent seat, which is arguably the least important detail of the reform in question.

The choice of starting with Russia is significant, because it signals the shift that has occurred in Japan with regards to its foreign policy and, more broadly, defence posture. This will become important at the end, when we will cover a particular event that was viewed as rather concerning by Tokyo.

Following the attention on Russia, the joint statement pays attention to China, under the broader scope of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. Specifically, they mentioned the Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas, Taiwan (as mentioned above), and the security deal with the Solomon Islands. This particular deal will become more important later, as this week Wang Yi will visit the Islands to sign the deal in question, during a broader visit of the Pacific Islands.

Other countries have been specifically mentioned: North Korea, which today made another missile test (potentially involving an ICBM), and Myanmar, in which the two leaders condemned the coup that occurred last year. This is a rather unprecedented move from Japan with regards to Myanmar, as it has been on the relatively quiet side since then.

Following all this, there is a lot covering the relationship between Japan and the US, which can be broadly summarised as an increased integration in all matters. This is of the utmost importance for two reasons:

·         Economically, Japan has been the country most able to counter China in the region, and this can only improve with more direct support from the US. Granted, a lot hinges on IPEF, which may or may not be successful, but there are also other ways for Tokyo and Washington to cooperate when it comes to the Indo Pacific

·         Militarily, the US has openly given its support to the ongoing boost in defence capabilities, eying closer integration between all relevant services of the two countries. Of note in this regard there is also the talk about relocating USMC units from Okinawa to Guam, a topic we mentioned previously (although I forgot to mention Guam as a possibility, given its distance to Taiwan).

Overall, it was a fairly successful meeting and a good introduction to the Quad meeting that followed the day after.

Quad meeting and reactions

The Quad meeting that was held yesterday was arguably the most important to date, for a variety of reasons. To start with, it was the first major event in which the new Australian Prime Minister, Albanese, took part in. In fact, he was sworn in just a few hours before travelling to Japan, and a lot of attention was on him. The reason is because he is viewed as potentially more friendly towards China, including by Beijing itself.

Secondly, especially in light of the focus on Russia the day prior, there was the potential issue with regards to India, due to its historic relationship with Russia and its positions over the war in Ukraine.

Before briefly going through the joint statement, there is something I need to mention first. The day prior, Kishida also met with President Modi, who said that Japan is an ‘indispensable partner’. This is in line with a prior meeting the two held, covered in ‘The Quad stands, despite Biden’s comments’, and shows how truly influential Japan has become.

Arguably, this is the most important development transpired over the visit, which is more of a testament to how far this country has gone rather than how Biden has fared (despite the needed criticisms we covered yesterday).

This detail is important because there are hints of it all over the Quad’s joint statement, which in essence retreads what was said the day prior in the joint statement between Kishida and Biden.

It once again started by looking at Ukraine, but from the angle of international law (so as not to isolate India, given that Modi himself has argued for peace on these grounds), to then move on the Indo Pacific (without naming China, although several references are rather obvious like in the case of illegal fishing and the China Seas) and finally to cover once again North Korea and Myanmar.

Other topics have also been mentioned: terrorism, Covid-19, climate change and, most importantly, various co-operations in economic matters like infrastructure, 5G and space.

Overall, it is a good synthesis of the various countries’ priorities and sensibilities, which is especially important in this day and age. This is true following how China and Russia reacted: on the day of the Quad meeting, these two countries launched a coordinated intrusion in South Korean and Japanese ADIZ. While the amount of planes involved is not particularly concerning, as there were a handful, the coordination in and of itself definitely is (and Tokyo expressed this very sentiment, as reported by Kyodo News).

Conclusion

As of now, it is difficult to see the true extent of the cooperation between China and Russia over these matters, but one thing is certain: going forward, the defining events in the region will see the Quad on the one hand and China on the other, with Russia leaning towards the latter.

With this in mind, the events in the Pacific Islands will become important, as we will see China and Australia continue their influence war. We have been covering this topic since the security deal with the Solomon Islands broke out, and will be one of the running themes going forward.

At the same time, there is another theme that will become increasingly influential going forward. As we have been covering for some time, Tokyo’s foreign policy has been shifting, especially when it comes to defence matters. At the same time, Kishida has managed to remain quite popular, with his popularity hovering around 60% (now it is at 64%).

If indeed he is able to enact the changes, including but not limited to the boost in defence spending and capabilities, while preserving his popularity (both at home and with other countries), it will have profound effects on the region that has not seen an assertive Japan since the Pacific War.

To be fair, this has been something long in the making, as the process started under Shinzo Abe, but it has been relatively low key until very recently and it will probably be increasingly overt going forward.

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