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Biden To Meet Japanese Counterpart Yoshihide Suga At The White House


The first foreign head of state to meet face to face with President Biden arrives in Washington today ahead of a summit on Friday. The choice of Japan's prime minister is no coincidence. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on a signal of the Biden administration's priorities.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Lawmaker Shiori Yamao has been busy preparing for Prime Minister Suga's visit. She's vice chairman of a group of lawmakers formed this month to promote Japan's human rights diplomacy. She shares President Biden's views about a brewing battle between democracy and authoritarianism.

SHIORI YAMAO: (Through interpreter) The international community is being pulled in two directions. Will we maintain the values we have shared up to now, or will authoritarianism become the more powerful?

KUHN: She says she expects Suga and Biden to demonstrate that they're cooperating on promoting democracy and the rule of law. The Biden administration's goal is to enlist its allies to face China's challenge to U.S. leadership. And perhaps no country is more central to that effort than Japan. Mike Mochizuki is a political scientist and international relations expert at George Washington University.

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: The United States needs Japan so much that the Americans will have no choice but to listen. But the problem is, is that the Japanese don't know quite what to say. They can't agree.

KUHN: Japan does know, he says, that it wants a stronger U.S. commitment to help defend the Senkaku or, in Chinese, Diaoyu Islands, claimed by both countries but administered by Japan. But beyond that, he says, Japan faces a strategic dilemma. Tokyo would like the U.S. to remain the dominant power in Asia but perhaps not at the cost of being dragged into a conflict with China. Put another way...

MOCHIZUKI: Japan fears China, but it doesn't fear China so much that it's able to remove all the restraints and shackles on its defence policy to actually even spend 2% of GDP on defense.

KUHN: Which would be double Japan's current spending. Japan's ability to beef up its military to help the U.S. is constrained both by public opinion and its postwar constitution, which forbids it from resolving disputes by war.

BEN ASCIONE: Japan's made a lot of progress in reinterpreting and loosening the restrictions on its use of force.

KUHN: Ben Ascione is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.

ASCIONE: But any expectation from the United States that Japan is going to make more than incremental shifts in its policy are likely to be met with disappointment.

KUHN: The two countries' leaders are likely to jointly criticize what they consider China's human rights abuses and coercive behavior towards other countries. While that kind of criticism would have previously been unimaginable, there remains a gap in Tokyo's and Washington's perceptions of threats and interests. One test of how they narrow that gap may be what they say about Taiwan.

ELLIS KRAUSS: That's the one I would watch very carefully. If it's the usual boilerplate about we seek a peaceful resolution in the Taiwan Straits, nothing much has moved.

KUHN: Ellis Krauss is a Japan expert at the University of California, San Diego. Hawks in both Washington and Tokyo would like the allies to commit to jointly defending Taiwan from a possible attack by mainland China. But Krauss says that the U.S. and Japan have always avoided saying anything that might embolden Beijing or Taipei to make rash moves.

KRAUSS: The strategic ambiguity was a very good thing, so I think they're going to preserve that.

KUHN: Krauss says Suga and Biden will have plenty of other issues to work on that don't antagonize China, such as climate change and COVID.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIZUE'S "METEOR SHOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.