US President received Japan's prime minister for his first in-person summit, and was expected to announce a US$2 billion 5G initiative to compete with China

US President Joe Biden received Japan’s prime minister for his first in-person summit, and was expected to announce a US$2 billion 5G initiative to compete with China. (Photo by Eugene Hoshiko / various sources / AFP)

US, Japan plan 5G push to compete with China

President Joe Biden on Friday received the prime minister of Japan for his first in-person summit, with the leaders expected to announce a US$2 billion 5G initiative as part of a concerted US push to compete with China. Biden’s decision to invite Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as his first guest – with South Korean President Moon Jae-in set to come in May – reflects his renewed priority on US alliances as he zeroes in on a rising China as America’s most pressing challenge.

A senior US official said that technology leader Japan would announce a “very substantial commitment” of US$2 billion in partnership with the United States “to work on 5G and next steps beyond.” China’s Huawei has taken an early dominance in fifth-generation internet, which is becoming an increasingly crucial part of the global economy, despite heavy US pressure on the company, which Washington argues poses threats to security and privacy in the democratic world.

The official said Biden will also speak to Japan about its climate goals as the US prepares to hold a virtual summit on climate change next week. And the official said they will discuss growing tensions over Taiwan as the island has reported growing penetration of its airspace by Beijing, which claims the self-governing democracy.

“Neither country is seeking to raise tensions or to provoke China, but at the same time we’re trying to send a clear signal that some of the steps that China is taking,” the official said, are “antithetical to the mission of maintaining peace and stability.” While the timing was coincidental, the official said it was appropriate that Suga was visiting two days after Biden made the momentous decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years, ending the longest-ever US war.

The pullout will “free up time and attention and resources from our senior leadership and our military to focus on what we believe are the fundamental challenges in the 21st century and they lie fundamentally in the Indo-Pacific,” the official said. “The United States can only be effective in Asia when the US-Japan relationship is strong and Japan is steady and stable,” he said. indicating that 5G will be just one of the areas the two countries will focus on at the summit.

Nuanced differences of approach

Suga in September succeeded his ally Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who was one of the few democratic allies to manage to preserve stable relations with Biden’s volatile predecessor Donald Trump.

Biden’s inaugural summit – held an unusually late three months into his term due to the Covid-19 pandemic – is expected to be a tame affair after the Trump era, with the president welcoming the soft-spoken Japanese leader for one-on-one talks and an expanded meeting with the cabinet before a joint news conference.

But Suga, who Japanese media reported arrived in Washington Thursday evening, is expected to balk at becoming an overenthusiastic cheerleader for the US line on China, which remains the vital top trading partner for resource-scarce Japan.

Tokyo since Abe’s time has worked to stabilize relations with Beijing and not joined Washington in sanctions over rights concerns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. “The Biden administration, I think, is concerned at how aggressive China has been and how much ground the US has lost in recent years in Asia and wants to catch up quickly,” said Michael Green, who was the top Asia adviser to former president George W. Bush and is now senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think the Japanese view is that they have had a strategy in place and they want to move forward steady as she goes,” he said. “So there’s a bit of a nuanced difference in public tone but not in direction,” he said.

But Japan will welcome what is expected to be a fresh declaration that the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands – where Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu, has been increasingly assertive – fall under the US-Japan security treaty that requires mutual defense.

Suga, and Moon next month, will also consult Biden as he reviews US policy on North Korea, where Trump’s unusual personal diplomacy with leader Kim Jong Un eased tensions but did not bring a lasting accord on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.