The United States' new president, Joe Biden, and Japan's recently minted prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, badly need to get along at their first meeting Friday, which is also the first visit to the White House by any foreign leader during Biden's three-month-old administration. And they need this for mostly the same reasons: to counter China's rising threat and prove their political mettle at home.
"Both Suga and Biden need to spin their meeting as a great success," said Gerald Curtis, a long-time scholar of Japanese politics at Columbia University. Suga, who is unusual for a prime minister representing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in that he does not run his own political faction, "cannot go home and hope to be reelected LDP leader if he doesn't demonstrate an ability to manage the US relationship. No prime minister since the end of World War II has been able to survive mishandling the American alliance."
But Biden also can't afford for the meeting to fizzle, not "when he has invested so much on making the restoration of relations with allies the centerpiece of his foreign-policy strategy," Curtis said. No ally is more important than stalwart Japan—not after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently deemed China the United States' "biggest geopolitical test." It is almost certainly Japan's too. At a meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last month, Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said that between China's aggressive military actions in the Taiwan Strait and its plan to deploy the Chinese coast guard to patrol the Senkaku Islands—under Japan's administration but claimed by China—Japan's strategic situation is more perilous than it was just a few short years ago.
When Austin met with Japanese officials, both sides agreed to "more sophisticated bilateral, as well as many multilateral exercises," said Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi. Suga himself told Japan's parliament last fall that, during a phone call he made to Biden after he was elected, Biden indicated that if the Senkaku Islands were attacked, he would invoke Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty, requiring a US response. Japan and the United States have also reportedly begun to work out a joint document to be issued at the summit that will clearly state the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait, and Tokyo is considering whether to partake in a planned US missile network against China along the so-called "first island chain" connecting Okinawa to the Philippines, though such emplacements are controversial inside Japan.
Meanwhile the Japanese government—often reluctant in the past to criticize Beijing on human rights abuses—has reportedly agreed to a US demand to do just that ahead of the summit. Reporting on that agreement last week provoked a Chinese warning for Tokyo to not get "carried away" by following in Washington's footsteps with sanctions. "A certain superpower's will does not represent the international community," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
For Suga, negotiating a path between the two superpowers is treacherous. China is Japan's number one trading partner: It sent 22.1 percent of its exports to China in 2019, compared to 18.5 percent to the United States. (The United States' largest trading partners are the European Union, Canada, and Mexico.) Japanese exports to China increased by another 5.1 percent from 2019 to 2020. If Suga signs onto a tough human rights statement, Japan will very likely suffer Chinese boycotts and tariffs even worse than those levied against Australia by Beijing after Canberra openly criticized China's aggressive actions toward Hong Kong and Taiwan.
But under Suga, Japan is also taking a tougher stance toward China—a country it has treated gingerly since World War II, when Japanese invaders committed atrocities—than it has in decades. "What I sense is that there is a very deep shift in Japanese public attitudes," said Clyde Prestowitz, a long-time Japan hand in the US diplomatic corps and author of The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership, which examines the US-China geopolitical rivalry. "They're beginning to think the threat from China is real. Look how close Taiwan is to the Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands—and Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu islands. If the People's Liberation Army is occupying Taiwan, they have a real choke on everything going to Japan."
In the face of these common threats, how will the Biden-Suga relationship play out? Since the end of World War II, Japan has relied on the United States for its defense. As a result, Japanese politicians find their prestige and popularity often depend on how US presidents treat them. In the 1980s, then-Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's famous "Ron and Yasu" friendship with then-US President Ronald Reagan helped make him one of Japan's longest-serving premiers, especially after he declared he would turn Japan into an unsinkable "aircraft carrier" for US forces against the Soviet Union.
Most recently, Suga's predecessor and former boss, Shinzo Abe, tried hard to cultivate then-US President Donald Trump's goodwill, even nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize at the US president's demand. But despite what the Japanese media saw as Abe's chronic obsequiousness, the prime minister didn't escape Trump's trade wrath. The president slapped 25 percent steel tariffs on Japan, and although Abe pleaded with Trump not to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he did so anyway. Trump's cavalier approach to North Korea and demand that Japan pay $8 billion annually as expenses to host US troops—more than four times the current amount—may have finally proven too much: Abe left office last fall complaining of digestive illness.
Suga and Biden should have a better chance at a partnership because their interests are more aligned and they are alike in many ways. Suga, 72, could be described as the Biden of Japan: a somewhat colorless professional politician overshadowed by a charismatic predecessor—in Suga's case, Abe; in Biden's, Barack Obama. Like Biden, he often stumbles when he speaks, even when reading prepared remarks. Like Biden, Suga has even had to contend with a scandal surrounding his son (in Suga's case involving the wining and dining of telecommunications ministry bureaucrats during Covid-19). Biden famously likes to bill himself as a man of the people, and Suga too comes from the working class: a son of farmers who worked at a cardboard factory, a fish market, and then as a local lawmaker's secretary before entering politics.
Yet Suga is often underestimated as Biden has been. "They have a lot in common in their personalities," said Kazuhiro Maeshima, a politics expert at Sophia University in Tokyo. To political pros, Maeshime said, Suga is known as a tough, no-nonsense consensus builder who, when he was chief cabinet secretary under Abe, "used the powerful Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs to control the bureaucracy in a very hard-line manner." Maeshima said Suga is reminiscent of previous "shadow shoguns" in Japanese politics who pulled strings for years out of the headlines; Maeshima predicted Suga may stay in power longer than many people anticipate.
As with all summits, the optics of Friday's meeting will be as critical as the substance, and both sides will try to orchestrate cozy photo ops. Suga probably has more at stake, not least because his popularity ratings are meager following the once-popular Abe, while Biden has coasted. Suga has also been criticized for bungling Japan's Covid-19 response; less than 1 percent of the Japanese public have been vaccinated so far, putting Japan far behind the United States and Europe as well as some developing nations.
"These trips are always important for Japanese elites to affirm that Japan is the most loyal ally of the United States," said Matthew Goodman, a former director for international economics on the National Security Council and an Asian trade specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But optically, it's also very important for Biden to show that we are serious when we say we're going to work with key allies and partners. And this is the first time he's had the ability to do that in person with a key ally."
Until now, Biden has met only virtually with other foreign leaders, most notably the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue nations, consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia.
The joint communique the two leaders will likely release is expected to applaud the strength of US-Japan trade relations and an agreement to jointly develop new technologies. And it will probably build on the extraordinarily detailed indictment of Chinese behavior that came out of meetings among Blinken, Austin, and their Japanese counterparts in March, calling the US-Japan alliance—along with the Quad they are part of—the linchpin of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. Suga is also making a lot of the right noises on key Biden issues, such as climate change, where he has been even more progressive than Abe by calling for a carbon-free Japan by 2050.
Still, the central issue of how tough to get with China could create some daylight between the two leaders.
"It is an open question how sensitive the Biden people are to the domestic constraints on Suga," Curtis said. "How brave will Suga be in moving Japan closer to the new US administration's China strategy?"
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh