Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the US and Japan would oppose coercion or violence in the South and East China Seas, in unusually blunt comments about China following his Joe Biden summit.
Suga, along with the US president at the White House, said on Friday that the two leaders had had serious discussions about China and the Indo-Pacific region’s “tough security environment”.
“We have agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas and intimidation of others in the region,” Suga said.
The US and Japan are concerned about Chinese military activities near Taiwan in the South China Sea. They are also concerned about Beijing’s actions around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea controlled by Tokyo but claimed by China, which they call the Diaoyu.
Suga said leaders also stressed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait, in a language that underscored growing concerns in the US and Japan about increasing Chinese military activity around the island.
He said the two leaders had also confirmed the recent statement made by their top defense and foreign policy officials in Tokyo on “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Suga’s remarks about Taiwan were the most assertive of a Japanese leader since the US and Japan both saw China’s diplomatic recognition of Taipei to Beijing have switched.
“There has been a lot more nod to Taiwan’s problem than we’ve seen at a US-Japan summit since 1969,” he said, referring to Richard Nixon’s summit with Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.
China has engaged in a massive military buildup in Japan’s backyard – as it becomes increasingly threatening territory that Japan considers its own
Green added that Suga’s statement opposing unilateral efforts to change the status quo was a phrase the US has used about Taiwan since the George W. Bush administration.
At the press conference, Biden said the US and Japan were “determined to work together to address China’s challenges,” including the East and South China Seas.
This week, the Chinese Air Force flew 25 fighters, bombers and surveillance planes to the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone, a record break-in.
China immediately criticized the joint statement, saying the US-Japan comments went well beyond normal bilateral relations.
“It couldn’t be more ironic that such an attempt to foment divisions and build blocks against other countries is placed under the banner of ‘free and open’. The US-Japan plan goes against the trend of the times and the will of the people of the region, ”the Chinese embassy in Washington DC said in a statement.
The statement also reiterated that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang are internal Chinese affairs and that Beijing will “firmly protect its national sovereignty, security and development interests”.
Japan is increasingly concerned about Taiwan as any conflict between the US and China over the island in Tokyo would strike due to the mutual defense treaty with Washington.
A senior US official recently told the Financial Times that Washington was concerned that China was flirting with the idea of invading Taiwan, which Beijing says is part of its sovereign territory.
In addition to Suga’s comments at the press conference, leaders reiterated their concerns in a joint statement released after the summit, the first time such language has been recorded since the Nixon-Sato meeting.
In the statement, leaders said they also shared serious concerns about the human rights situation in Hong Kong, where China has cracked down on the pro-democracy movement, as well as in northwestern Xinjiang province.
The White House had urged Suga to voice support for Taiwan before the summit, but Japanese officials were divided on whether he should refer to the island during his visit to the US. Some argued that the recent Tokyo statement had sent a strong enough signal to China, while others said Japan should demonstrate a united front with the US.
Suga was the first foreign leader to visit Biden since entering the White House in January, underlining the importance the US attaches to relations with Japan as part of its broader strategy to counter China.
Prior to the summit, China had warned Japan not to get involved in the Washington-Beijing confrontation.
Suga focused not only on China, but also on strengthening Tokyo’s defense capabilities and strengthening deterrence between the US and Japan.
“China has engaged in a massive military build-up in Japan’s backyard – as it becomes an increasingly menacing area that Japan sees as its property. Yet Japan’s defense budgets have remained remarkably low, at 1 percent of gross domestic product, ”said Jennifer Lind, an Asia security expert at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “The dangers from China mean that Japan simply has to do more. And Suga’s statement suggests it will. “
Additional reporting by Edward White
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