During his visit to Tokyo in May, US President Joe Biden attended a Japanese-American summit and a meeting of Quad leaders. Among the topics he discussed was US military involvement in a potential conflict involving China and Taiwan.
Ahead of Biden’s visit, former US State Department official Ken Moskowitz, who is now an adjunct professor at Temple University, Japan campus, noted that the president would like to send a clear message to potential allies and adversaries of America in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“(Biden and Kishida) want to make it clear that they see parallels with the situation in Europe,” Moskowitz said, “and they hope to discourage through deterrence and language any more aggressive behavior on the part of the China”.
Japan and the United States are sounding the alarm on China
After the May 23 talks between Kishida and Biden, Kishida told a news conference that the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have a destabilizing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The prime minister pointed to Chinese naval activities, especially joint exercises organized by China and Russia, and said it was crucial to monitor them.
But it was Biden’s comments about how the United States would react if China tried to take Taiwan by force that drew the most attention. Biden suggested he would be willing to go further on behalf of Taiwan than he did for Ukraine. When asked if he would agree to use force, he replied: “Yes”.
Biden’s comments left people wondering if he misspoke or got rid of Washington’s position of strategic ambiguity on the potential conflict.
Maeshima Kazuhiro, a professor at Sophia University and an expert on US politics, said the president had made similar statements before and that his comments were aimed at controlling China.
“If it’s a third time, that’s a strategy,” Maeshima says. “This is a strategy to prevent China from taking military action in the Taiwan Strait amid fears that Taiwan could be the next ‘Ukraine’.”
Biden and Kishida also talked about using the Japan-US alliance to exert what they called “extended deterrence,” a phrase widely interpreted to potentially mean protecting Japan with US nuclear weapons.
Akiyama Nobumasa, a professor of international politics at Hitotsubashi University, says there is merit in having this kind of security, but Kishida must also focus on the long term.
“A nuclear-free world is something the international community should strive for in the future,” he said. “Japan should be able to take the lead in this intellectual enterprise and bring together the wisdom of the world.”
Challenges Facing Quad Countries
On May 24, the leaders of the group of countries known as the Quad – Japan, the United States, Australia and India – held a summit.
Biden told the rally that “as long as Russia continues the war, the United States will work with our partners to help be the global response, because it will affect every part of the world.
“At the same time, the United States must and will be a strong, stable and enduring partner in the Indo-Pacific.”
A joint statement released after the Quad meeting echoed Biden’s sentiments: “We discussed our respective responses to the conflict in Ukraine and the ongoing tragic humanitarian crisis and assessed its implications for the Indo-Pacific.
“The leaders of the Quad reiterated our firm determination to maintain peace and stability in the region. We unequivocally underlined that the centerpiece of the international order is international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. We also stressed that all countries should seek peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law,” the statement said.
The four leaders did not mention China by name either in their oral comments or in the joint statement. Instead, they stressed the goal of building an Indo-Pacific region that respects sovereignty and the rule of law – the diplomatic formulation meant to be aimed at Beijing.
Maeshima said Biden’s visit to Japan was meant to highlight the growing role of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. “Although the United States is now deeply involved in the Ukraine crisis, the greatest diplomatic attention continues to be China. China’s military and economic rise over the past 20 years has come as a great shock to the world.”
Indeed, China has shown itself increasingly willing to provide a strong response to the collaborative flex of its rivals.
Just a week after Biden’s Asian tour, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with 10 Pacific island nations in Fiji to discuss strengthening economic and security ties.
Observers say the trip was clearly designed to send a message – that China will not let go of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.