The US is urging Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga to issue a joint statement of support for Taiwan amid rising Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region when he becomes the first foreign leader to meet President Joe Biden on Friday.
Suga will visit the White House for a summit that will underscore the importance of the US-Japan alliance to Biden’s strategy of working with allies to counter Beijing.
The US wants to refer to Taiwan in the statement that the leaders will issue, according to four people familiar with the situation. The last Japanese and US leaders to mention Taiwan in a joint statement were Eisaku Sato and Richard Nixon in 1969.
Taiwan has become an increasingly dangerous flashpoint as China dramatically expands its military activity around the country. Beijing sent 25 fighter jets, bombers and other aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on Monday, the biggest Chinese incursion in history.
A senior US official last month told the Financial Times that the Biden administration was worried China was flirting with seizing control of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its sovereign territory.
The White House wants to reinforce the message that Antony Blinken, secretary of state, and Lloyd Austin, defence secretary, and their Japanese counterparts, Toshimitsu Motegi and Nobuo Kishi, sent to China recently. In a joint statement made in Tokyo, the four officials stressed the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
But Japanese officials were divided over whether Suga should comment on Taiwan, according to two people familiar with the situation.
One person said some in Japan believed the recent bilateral statement had already sent a message to China and repeating the comments at the level of Biden and Suga would only serve to antagonise Beijing. Others stressed that Japan must stand firm with the US.
Tokyo is cautious about the national security implications of making commitments to Taiwan and wants to avoid a confrontation with Beijing. Japan relies on China economically, even as the countries contest the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.
Kurt Campbell, the top White House Asia official spearheading the talks, has been holding frantic discussions with Japanese representatives, including during a whirlwind visit to Tokyo last week.
The White House declined to comment on the status of the negotiations with Japan. Japan’s foreign ministry said a post-summit statement was still under discussion. One senior Japanese official rejected the idea that Tokyo was reluctant to mention Taiwan.
Mireya Solís, a Japan expert at the Brookings Institution think-tank, said Suga was likely to echo the sentiment of the recent statement. “If they don’t follow up with similar language, the question is why not . . . I don’t think they want to create doubts,” she said.
But she added that Tokyo was concerned about undermining the “carefully orchestrated rapprochement” that it started with Beijing a few years ago.
Elizabeth Larus, an Asia expert at the University of Mary Washington, said it was critical to show a “united front” over Taiwan. “Not only will China be listening to hear any such statement, but so will US allies in the Asia-Pacific who need to be reassured of US commitment to the region,” she said.
Three of the people familiar with the situation said the White House was also encouraging Suga to comment on Japan-South Korea relations. Ties between the Asian neighbours have been strained by historic disputes and the US wants Tokyo and Seoul to mend relations to help tackle issues such as North Korea.
Joshua Walker, head of the Japan Society, said the US wanted Japan to be more public about concerns that it expressed privately over Taiwan, Beijing’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and human rights abuses towards Uighurs in Xinjiang.
“Biden . . . is asking for a more explicit and public posture, in contrast to the private tough line we hear from Tokyo but then they refrain in public because they don’t want to rock the boat on the Olympics or trade,” he said.
Concerns about Taiwan have become increasingly acute as China has stepped up military activity in recent months. Alarm has also grown in Tokyo because any conflict between the US and China would draw in Japan, which has a mutual defence treaty with Washington.
The US has not clarified whether it would defend Taiwan from attack, a policy known as “strategic ambiguity” that is designed to deter Chinese military action and reduce the odds that Taipei would declare independence.
Asked recently if the US would protect Taiwan, Blinken said it would be a “serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force”. The state department has also changed its guidelines to make it easier for US officials to meet their Taiwanese counterparts.
Beijing on Monday warned the US to “refrain from playing with fire [and] immediately stop official contact with Taiwan”. But Biden sent two former deputy secretaries of state, Richard Armitage and James Steinberg, and former senator Chris Dodd to Taipei the next day to offer support.