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China aggression on agenda as Japanese PM heads to Washington

China is expected to dominate talks between Joe Biden and the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, in Washington on Friday amid growing international condemnation of Beijing’s military exercises near Taiwan and human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Suga will become the first world leader to meet Biden since his inauguration in January, a repeat of Shinzo Abe’s meeting with the then president-elect, Donald Trump, in late 2016.

A crisis involving Taiwan would be of particular concern to Japan, since Chinese expansion could quickly ensnare the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu.

Officials in Tokyo said Suga would seek reassurances that defence of the strategically important islands were covered by their bilateral security treaty, which commits the US to defending Japanese territory that has come under attack.

“The meeting is very meaningful in that it shows to the world the solidarity of the Japan-US alliance and the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region,” the chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, told reporters ahead of the summit. “We also hope it will provide the two leaders with a precious opportunity to deepen their personal relationship of trust.”

Media reports have suggested that the US has pushed Japan to support “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait in their joint statement – a move almost certain to anger China – Japan’s biggest trading partner. Japanese and US leaders have not mentioned Taiwan in a joint statement since Eisaku Sato and Richard Nixon in 1969.

But Tobias Harris, a Japan specialist at Teneo consultancy, believes Suga will avoid saying anything that risks damaging ties with Beijing.

“I think it’s clear even before the summit that despite some hawkish sounds from Tokyo, it will be difficult for Japan to break with recent convention when it comes to expressing its support for Taiwan, not least to avoid a deeper rift with Beijing,” Harris said.

Japan is also traditionally cautious about criticising China’s human rights record, and has not joined the US, Britain and the European Union in imposing sanctions against Chinese officials over Beijing’s detention and abuse of member of the Muslim Uyghur minority.

“Disagreement is unlikely to surface, because the purpose of the meeting is to show off their tight relationship to the world, and because Biden administration is different from the Trump administration,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

“But behind the scenes, it is easy to imagine that Japan’s interests are not exactly the same as those of the US. China is a close neighbour, and Japan must be careful.”

While Biden’s announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is seen as more evidence of a weakened American appetite for intervention, he and Suga are expected to reaffirm their security alliance in the face of a more assertive China and signs that North Korea could resume nuclear and missile tests.

“The Biden administration has been consistently signalling that Asia is its top foreign policy priority,” Harris said. “Having Suga arrive as Biden’s first foreign visitor just after announcing that the US will leave Afghanistan imminently is a meaningful indication of Biden’s priorities.”

The leaders will also discuss the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency. Japanese media reports said Suga, 72, who received two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine before flying to the US on Thursday, could seek Biden’s public support for the Tokyo Olympics, and is expected to invite him to attend to the Games.

Like his predecessors, Suga will also raise the cold war abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea – “the most important issue for my administration,” he said recently.

Suga, who faces a ruling party leadership election in September, will be hoping his four-day visit will boost his flagging approval ratings in Japan, where he faces criticism over the government’s response to rising Covid-19 cases and slow vaccine rollout, as well as a series of political scandals.

“Suga lacks experience in foreign affairs,” said Nakabayashi. “So the summit will be a great opportunity for him to reinvent himself as a genuine national and world leader, and to affirm a stronger bilateral alliance.”

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