As Japan’s Suga meets Biden, China is the elephant in the room

By arranging to meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Washington, DC, in his first in-person summit, United States President Joe Biden appears to be sending a message: Asia, and in particular Japan, is at the heart of US foreign policy.

While issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and North Korea are expected to be high on their list of talking points, another nation, though not physically present at Friday’s meeting, is likely to be top of mind: China. Beijing has already made its displeasure about the summit known.

The US and Japan share many of the same grievances concerning China. They include Beijing’s abuse of the Uighur community in the far-western region of Xinjiang, its activities in the East China Sea and the use of advanced technology to gain an economic edge over its competitors.

While both countries have plenty to lose by being too aggressive in dealing with China, Japan is being forced to walk a particularly fine line compared with the US.

In trade at least, China is far more important to Japan than it is to the US.

China became Japan’s top export destination in 2020, leapfrogging the US and consuming more than 22 percent of Japanese goods sold overseas, according to Japan’s Ministry of Finance data. For the US, China was its third-largest export destination, accounting for 8.7 percent of its total goods exports, after Canada and Mexico, US Census Bureau figures show.

Meanwhile, Japan wants to ensure that it remains aligned with the US, its only military ally, as disputes between Tokyo and Beijing over islands in the East China Sea rumble on.

After years of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to get friends and foes alike to reduce their trade surpluses with the US, Biden is taking a different approach. He has been clear even while campaigning ahead of last year’s election that he would seek to work together with the US’s traditional allies – including Japan – in confronting China on issues such as trade imbalances and its alleged abuse of intellectual property and human rights, which Beijing denies.

The groundwork for Friday’s meeting has included a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Tokyo last month, their first overseas trip, another signal of the importance of Japan to the US’s strategic goals.

The two sides are also setting up working groups to discuss emerging technologies, climate change, COVID-19 measures and bilateral economic cooperation, The Japan Times reported last month quoting Japanese government sources.

But it is the various facets of their relationship with China that are likely to dominate the meeting.

‘Shameful’

Suga and Biden are expected to make a joint statement expressing their deep concern about human rights violations in China, according to The Japan Times’s sources.

Biden has been scaling up the pressure on Beijing for its use of what it calls re-education centres in Xinjiang. The United Nations and rights groups say they are internment camps used to quell dissent. Beijing has also been accused of using the camps as factories for forced labour to make clothes for export to prominent Western retail chains.The US, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union imposed coordinated sanctions last month on current and former Chinese officials over the alleged abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. That action followed statements by the US, Canada and the Netherlands saying China’s treatment of the Uighurs amounts to genocide. Washington placed an import ban on all cotton and tomato products from the region.

China responded with targeted measures of its own.

Japan has expressed its concerns about the Uighurs, but it has so far not joined in with the Western sanctions against Beijing, and it lacks the legal framework for it to do so. The pressure on Suga to push for changes that would allow for sanctions – not something that is universally supported by Japanese policymakers – could be ratcheted up in his meetings with Biden.

“Japan is the only G7 country not taking part in the sanctions,” Gen Nakatani, a former Japanese defence minister, who co-chairs a cross-party group of policymakers on China policy, told the Bloomberg news agency. “It’s shameful for Japan to be seen as a country that’s pretending not to know what’s going on.”

Before the summit, China has turned up the heat on Japan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi earlier this month that their two countries should ensure their relations “do not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries”, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.

It quoted Wang as saying “China hopes that Japan, as an independent country, will look at China’s development in an objective and rational way, instead of being misled by some countries holding biased view against China”.

Some Japanese companies have been caught in the diplomatic crossfire. Shares of Ryohin Keikaku Co, the operator of the Muji chain of clothing and furniture stores, tumbled last month after it issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Several Chinese celebrities cut ties with Uniqlo, the fashion brand owned by Fast Retailing Co.

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