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Japanese PM Suga’s Visit Repositions U.S. Asia Strategy

Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is the Deputy Director for Geoeconomics and the Senior Northeast Asia Associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is the first foreign leader to meet with Joe Biden as president in the White House. It’s a coup for Japan and a much-ballyhooed achievement for Suga himself. But beyond bestowing Japan bragging rights to get the much-coveted first meeting, it also makes clear the priority the United States now gives to Asia when it comes to foreign policy, and that Japan is a key partner for Washington to achieve its objectives in the Indo-Pacific.

The China Factor

The Biden administration has made clear its intentions to work closely with like-minded countries in tackling issues of mutual concern. Certainly, it is looking to gather a convoy of nations to push back against the China threat, from economic coercion to human rights violations to military aggressions. At the Tokyo meeting with Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin, Japan made clear that it too shares Washington’s concerns about the increasing assertive actions by Beijing threatening the regional status quo. But to what extent Suga actually shares Biden’s views on viewing China as a strategic threat will be at the forefront of bilateral discussions. For Japan, China is also its single biggest trading partner and a geographically close neighbor. At the same time, Tokyo remains concerned about the reliability of the United States as a partner beyond the Biden administration. Focusing on the need for the two countries to ensure regional stability, especially cross-Strait relations and protecting Taiwan, will be an area that will ensure close cooperation between the two.

Economic Cooperation, Not Competition 

Although the global economy is expected to rebound post-pandemic, the need to reassess economic resilience is clear, especially when in securing global supply chains. Unlike in previous summits when mapping out trade deals and reducing tariff barriers were the biggest hurdles to overcome, the Biden-Suga meeting is expected to focus on bilateral cooperation on supply chain resilience. Securing semiconductors by developing initiatives for joint bilateral research, design, and production efforts will certainly be one outcome that is expected. Japan will also be seeking ways for the United States to engage in its efforts to invest more in Southeast Asia and decrease dependency on China. Such efforts have already been made through a trilateral Japan-India-Australia initiative.

Japan’s Challenge  

Although the United States is expecting more from Japan to be its voice in the Indo-Pacific, the wild card remains Japan’s own ability and appetite to take on that role. Suga will need to face a general election by September, but his popularity has been tepid at best. The continued uncertainties about Japan being able to host the summer Olympics successfully, and its ability to bring down covid infection rates, will be Suga’s focus. Unlike his predecessor Shinzo Abe, Suga has concentrated his efforts on domestic concerns and is seen to be less committed to developing a strategic roadmap for Japanese foreign policy. At the same time, there are growing concerns that Suga’s political position is weak, and that there is a possibility that he will not be able to survive beyond the election.

About the Author

Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto

Director, Indo-Pacific Program

Shihoko Goto is the director the Indo-Pacific Program at the Wilson Center. Her research focuses on the economics and politics of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, as well as US policy in Northeast Asia. A seasoned journalist and analyst, she has reported from Tokyo and Washington for Dow Jones and UPI on the global economy, international trade, and Asian markets. A columnist for The Diplomat magazine and contributing editor to The Globalist, she was previously a donor country relations officer for the World Bank and has been awarded fellowships from the East-West Center and the Knight Foundation, among others.

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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more