National Commentaries

“The Moon-Biden Summit in Retrospect”

A Japanese perspective


For the Japanese government, the US-ROK relationship after the establishment of the Biden administration is a difficult puzzle. The guiding principle was presumed to be the unfolding of this administration’s China policy. As is well-known, it quickly shifted the axis of diplomatic policy to conflictual relations with China, continuing to repeat critical assertions. However, what is seen as important here is not only the new administration’s hardline posture compared to its predecessors, but the most distinctive feature in its China posture was the fact it put the focus on “system differences.” For example, the preceding Obama and Trump administrations had respectively focused on the expansion of military power in the South China Sea and economic problems connected to unfair trade practices when criticizing China; the new approach clearly crossed a line.

For the Japanese government, this kind of policy transformation by the US government has two sides—one seen as welcome, the other regarded as confusing. On the welcoming side, the US government has returned to greatly valuing alliance relations with allies after under the Trump administration putting distance between it and US allies. The Japanese government has no reason to shy away from “free and open Indo-Pacific regional strategy” cooperation of countries sharing the values of “democracy, the rule of law, and market economies,” beginning with the pairing of Japan and the US, which originally was proposed under the second Abe administration, as the Biden administration has taken a direction close to this. Also welcome is America again strengthening its interest in widening cooperation in the East China and South China seas, starting with the Taiwan Strait, much as the Abe administration had advocated, including the concrete territorial dispute surrounding the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Thus, some voices were heard in the Japanese government that the March 2+2 in Tokyo and, even more, the April Japan-US summit in Washington were “100% successes.” However, barely a month after the summit, inside Japan’s government, little by little, concern has been deepening because under Biden’s posture of opposition to China, which has put the focus on “system differences,” it is not necessarily clear what is being sought from allied nations, beginning with Japan, as expressed through concrete policies.

US administration policies toward China to date, by comparison, had been easy to understand. Under the Obama administration, which worried about military expansion in the area centered on the South China Sea, what was sought of Japan was to engage more in pro-active security in this area. The second Abe administration broadened its military cooperation with Southeast Asian countries and Australia. Under the Trump administration, which was anxious about the expansion of China’s economic influence, beginning with the information and communications industries, the manifestation was the application of concrete policies of supplemental tariffs and sanctions against certain industries. Therefore, what was sought of Japan was no more than following the posture of the Trump administration within necessary limits.

In other words, the China policies of prior US administrations were limited in the focus of their opposition. Apart from coordinating in one area with a hardline posture, it was possible to sustain concrete relations with China in many areas beginning with fundamental economic ties. With the COVID-19 virus still not having finished its spread around the world, it is for this reason that it was possible for Abe to simultaneously have good relations with the Trump administration as it took a confrontational posture toward China while also conducting a sort of diplomatic “ikebana” by moving forward on a “state visit” to Japan for Chairman Xi Jinping.

This sort of Japanese government strategy made use of the spaces in US China policy, but that is not possible if the Biden administration’s posture in opposition to China focuses on “system differences,” which could mean complete negation of the system of the PRC led by the Chinese Communist Party. Moreover, in circumstances where the new US administration’s concrete China policies have yet to materialize, should the Japanese government do something to step out first to strengthen its relations with China, this, by itself, could raise the possibility of criticism ahead from the US government.

Japan-South Korea relations

The Biden administration, on the one hand, in words, keeps repeating its hardline posture, but on the other hand, is not necessarily clear on its concrete policies. That is the reason, the Japanese government has been driven into a state of inaction, not knowing what sort of posture it should take. A similar situation exists for Japan-South Korea, indirectly influenced by the Biden administration’s China policy. As the US government has already repeatedly made clear, amid the intensifying confrontational relations with China, it is seeking improved relations between Japan and South Korea, its allies. Thus, from just after the Biden administration was launched, both have watched with keen attention what kind of pressure it would apply aimed at improving relations. However, at the same time, there exists a big difference in what they are paying attention to.

As background, there appears to be a difference in self-confidence in structuring relations between the experience of prior administrations and the new administration. For example, for the South Korean government, pressure by the US to improve relations with Japan linked to moves to strengthen the posture toward China recalls the bitter experience of the December 2015 Japan-ROK “comfort women” agreement. Then the Obama administration, when a sharp clash was under way between the ROK and the Japanese government over the “comfort women” issue at the same time as it sought to restrain the Park Geun-hye’s administration over its growing closeness toward China, pressed for an agreement on the “comfort women” issue close in form to what the Japanese government was advocating. In this way, there was no room to do anything but retract the demands for legal compensation from the Japanese government that the Korean government had sought, which drew strong criticism from Korean public opinion.

The Korean government is concerned about the new administration’s structuring of relations itself. Simultaneous with the earlier experience under the Obama administration, it lost the diplomatic competition with Japan on the Washington stage. The scale of what the Japanese government had built in the way of networks and personal connections in Washington served as a painful experience for the Korean government. Under the Trump administration, the Moon Jae-in administration, mainly through networks in the intelligence organs, had succeeded in building good relations with the White House, which worked in leading Trump to dialogue with Kim Jong-un. In the background was the fact that Trump did not use the State Department and diplomatic networks in Washington but liked to conduct direct diplomacy through the White House. In short, the peculiarity was not the accumulated experience to date of the Japanese government in networking, but an ad hoc work-around of binational diplomacy. This meant that the establishment of the Biden administration for the ROK was understood as a return to the situation of being forced to take the bitter pill of the “comfort women” agreement. It is deeply worried that a great possibility exists of something disadvantageous to itself involving pressure for improvement of Japan-ROK relations.

At the same time as the Korean government is worried, the Japanese government is showing that it is hopeful because it anticipates movement beneficial to itself through US pressure to improve Japan-ROK relations. It has no need to be very wary of this. After Biden took office, the asymmetrical response, therefore, to expectations of pressure to improve Japan-ROK relations had been alarm in South Korea and optimism in Japan. However, that situation has gradually been changing. There are two factors bringing about this situation. In spite of the stress by the Biden administration on China and “system change,” there remains a lack of transparency about the concrete policies to follow. On that point, one concrete discussion repeatedly refers to the clear features of the FOIP advanced by Abe, which stresses the importance of Japan-US relations as the nucleus for maintaining this regional order, while adding as the principal cooperating partners India and Australia. In other words, after entering the 21st century, there exists a design for filling the growing military vacuum left by the US amid the advancing reorganization of military forces in the Indo-Pacific region with Japan, India, and Australia at the center.

If what the second Abe administration selected on its own was India and Australia, South Korea is what it clearly excluded from that point, the background to which was the deterioration in Japan-ROK relations as well as the deep distrust of the South Korean government by the Japanese government and, even more, Japanese public opinion. As is obvious, it is unnatural that excluded from this thinking was consciousness that South Korea is another major ally of the United States in this region, which has a vast military budget on a par with those of Japan and Germany. Being conscious of the competition for influence in Washington with South Korea and the efforts to maintain an exclusive position of its own as the principal ally in Northeast Asia, it is easy to grasp the intentions of Japan’s government.

Whatever the contradictions in Abe’s proposed FOIP, with which US support remained, to the end, abstract, nothing so fully exposed the concrete conditions missing in this policy as the reasons for the absence of South Korea in it. But what made this situation different was the Biden administration truly getting on board with the competition with China around the axis of “system differences.” No matter how much it is in conflict with Japan or how deep its economic ties with China are, South Korea clearly is one of the major regional countries having a “free and open” system. If we intentionally simplify matters, as in the “domino theory” of the Cold War era, it is natural for the United States, which is intensifying competition around the axis of “system differences,” not to be comfortable seeing any country with a “free and open” system dropped from the axis, in this situation.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese government, which pressed before for FOIP, having avoided this to date, has no means to exclude South Korea any more. Therefore, this should lead the government in these circumstances to undertake discussions with South Korea, for example, of the “Quad Plus.” Its participation in the “Quad Plus” would extend its presence in FOIP centered on the United States, because, with that, it would thereby expand South Korea’s influence in Washington。

Thus, the “desired outcome” for the Japanese government before the recent US-South Korean summit was for the US to stress to South Korea its oppositional posture toward China on the axis of “system differences,” leading perhaps to an actual rupture in talks, because if South Korea had failed, Japan did not need to make any effort to exclude South Korea by herself. However, in fact, while words demonstrated a hardline posture toward China, the Biden administration, which had not taken concrete policies to put them into effect, did not put much concrete pressure on the Moon Jae-in administration, and also the South Korean government, worried about China’s vast economic influence, did not touch directly on this. As a result, Moon Jae-in succeeded in getting through this important first summit without incident.

In principle, the absence of strong criticism of China and corresponding concrete implementation by the Biden administration at this summit meeting based on “system differences” was advantageous for the Moon administration, but, in contrast, it meant a disadvantageous outcome for the Japanese government. As a result, the Moon administration has, for the time being, succeeded without difficulty in forging relations with the Biden administration, leaving the Japanese government watchful in a rather frustrated position, because the smooth relationship with the United States will allow Seoul to have more influence in Washington DC.

This situation means that already in Washington the duel between Japan and South Korea is actually beginning.  Whatever concrete China policies the Biden administration devises will place demands on both Japan and South Korea. In the midst of this, how will each position itself? Will it be, as envisioned by the Japanese government, that a line will be drawn by US China policy reflecting the difference in importance of Japan and South Korea, or, in contrast, will South Korea be pulled up to the same position as Japan and India as well as Australia?

To the degree the US concrete policy remains unclear, neither the Japanese nor South Korean government can proceed, leaving them watchfully silent about this, with different ideas. Perhaps, for the Moon Jae-in administration at the end of its term, there is unexpected good fortune that US-ROK relations can get through without trouble. As for the Suga administration, which is proud of the Japan-US alliance as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” it appears to be left in a state of irritation. More than the uncertainty about US China strategy, this continues a situation where Japan-ROK bilateral relations are left up in the air.


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