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Will Japan face China?  A visit to Washington may offer a clue.

TOKYO – During his visit to Washington this week, it looks like Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga could take a victory lap.

Mr Suga is the first foreign leader to be invited to the White House by President Biden, who has pledged to re-energize alliances. Japan already had the distinction last month of being the number one international destination for new U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense. And Mr. Suga won’t have to deal with threats of higher tariffs or the need for constant flattery that drove Mr. Biden’s mercurial predecessor.

But even as relations between the two countries calm down, Japan faces a perilous moment, with the United States pushing it to tackle more squarely the most glaring threat to stability in Asia: China.

It is the last stage of a centuries-old dance between the two countries. Since the United States forged an alliance with Japan during its post-war occupation, Tokyo has sought assurances of protection from Washington, while Washington has urged Tokyo to do more in its own defense. .

For decades during the Cold War, the preeminent threats seemed to come from Europe. Now, as Mr. Suga travels to Washington, Japan faces pervasive dangers in its own backyard.

“We are in a completely new era where the threat is focused on Asia, and Japan is at the forefront of this threat,” said Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and specialist in international security in Asia. from the east.

“The US-Japan alliance is at a crossroads,” said Ms. Lind. “The alliance must decide how we want to respond to the growing threat from China and the Chinese agenda for international order.”

Analysts and former officials said it was time for Japan to broaden its thinking on what a summit with its most important ally could accomplish.

Typically, a Japanese prime minister has a checklist. This visit is no different. The two leaders are expected to talk about the coronavirus pandemic, trade, the importance of securing supply chains for components such as semiconductors, the North Korean nuclear threat and common goals on climate change. .

“Usually, when a Japanese prime minister goes to the United States, there is some sort of shopping list: ‘Would you say this, could you reassure us about it,’ said Ichiro Fujisaki, former ambassador. from Japan to the United States.

This time, he said, “that’s not what we should be doing. I think we should talk big about the world and Asia-Pacific. “

Such bold statements would run counter to the deep-rooted instincts of Japanese officials. They tended to avoid mentioning China or its more sensitive interests, preferring vague and broad language on the need to keep an Indo-Pacific region free and open.

But as China has repeatedly ignored diplomatic or legal efforts to contain its aggressive actions in both southern China and the East China Sea, some say Japan needs to be more specific on what it is. could do in case of military conflict.

“Who doesn’t want freedom and openness?” said Jeffrey Hornung, analyst at RAND Corporation. “By signing up for these things, you are subtly taking a hit on China. But what are you going to do when these things that you say you are going to defend come under attack?

Japanese leaders typically use summits with US presidents to gain assurance that the United States, which has around 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, will defend the country’s right to control the uninhabited islands of Senkaku. Over the past year, China, which also claims the islands, has sent boats in or near Japanese territorial waters around the islands with increasing frequency.

Perhaps the greatest risk of conflict, however, is in the Taiwan Strait, where China has sent fighter jets to threaten the Democratic Island, which Beijing sees as rogue territory. When Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Tokyo last month, they and their Japanese counterparts issued a statement stressing “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait ”.

If MM. Biden and Suga include similar language in a joint statement this week, it would be the first time that the leaders of the United States and Japan have explicitly mentioned Taiwan since 1969. At that time, President Richard M. Nixon and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato issued a statement in which the Japanese leader said that “maintaining peace and security in the Taiwan region is also important for peace and security in Japan.”

The cruel details of how Japan might support the United States and Taiwan in the event of a Beijing invasion are likely beyond the scope of this week’s discussions. While Mr. Biden is unlikely to bluntly demand that Japan pay more for its defense, as President Donald J. Trump has done, the current president could amplify recent signals from his administration on efforts to to dissuade China. One possibility would be that Japan would be invited to host long-range missiles, a proposal that would likely meet with significant national opposition.

Mr Biden and Mr Suga are expected to discuss not only China’s military actions but also its human rights record, as well as the coup in Myanmar – points likely divergence between leaders.

The Biden administration has called China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region a genocide and imposed sanctions on Chinese officials. He also imposed sanctions on military generals in Myanmar. But Japan tends to be more circumspect when it comes to human rights or taking direct action such as economic sanctions.

Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, said the Suga administration had only approached human rights “rhetorically.”

“When you actually watch what they’re doing,” he says, “they’re trying to keep their options open a bit.”

For Japan, which has extensive trade with China and has investments in Myanmar, there is an obvious fear of backlash and it is understood that Beijing can turn off the tap at any time.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior researcher at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, noted that at the start of the pandemic, China designated some drugs and surgical masks as “strategic goods” and stopped shipping them to Japan. “We can no longer count on the free flow of goods from China,” Watanabe said.

Some Japanese officials say Mr. Suga shouldn’t be rushing to follow Mr. Biden’s tougher line on China and Myanmar. Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat who advises Suga, said Japan’s approach to these countries was “more a dialogue than sanctions.”

A person familiar with the thinking of Suga and his cabinet who spoke on condition of anonymity said that despite rising tensions, Japan did not want to upset its relationship with China. The person said that Japan should send a clear message to China on issues such as the rule of law, but the two sides should also maintain high-level communication.

Mr Biden could also try to lure Japan into climate change. Washington and Tokyo are working to drastically cut carbon emissions, and Biden is hosting a climate summit next week. One of the goals is to persuade Japan to stop its financial support for overseas coal projects, which it has already started to cut.

Mr. Suga can hope that a successful trip to Washington will strengthen his reputation at home, where he is politically vulnerable. The Japanese public are unhappy with his administration’s handling of the pandemic and the slow rollout of the vaccine (although Mr. Suga was allowed to travel after being vaccinated himself), and a majority oppose the move. decision to host the Olympic Games this summer.

The success of the trip may depend in part on whether Mr. Suga develops a rapport with Mr. Biden. Seasoned observers from Japan will closely follow Mr Suga, who is not known for his charisma, especially after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, spent a lot of time and effort wooing Mr Biden’s predecessor.

“We have two older and very traditional politicians in many ways,” said Kristin Vekasi, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “I’ll be curious to see what they do.”

Makiko Inoue contribution to reports.

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