Suga-Biden Summit Leaves Japan Driving Cooperation in Maritime Asia

The flurry of foreign policy meetings – the Quad on March 12, the Security Consultative Committee 2+2 meeting on March 16, and the latest summit in Washington on April 16 between the new Biden administration and its Japanese counterparts clearly indicates an intention for the two allies to work closely together and to rely on the U.S.-Japan alliance as the cornerstone for regional security. Yet so far, the flurry of meetings have not delivered specific or substantive actions that benefit Indo-Pacific maritime partners. The robust bilateral agenda that stalled about two years ago has yet to be revived.

Giving life to that agenda would have been helpful given the urgency surrounding maritime security in the region. One example of the complex issues at play is the Whitsun Reef incident in the South China Sea where some 200 Chinese vessels, including many believed to be maritime militia, are moored despite the reef being well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Southeast Asian leaders, many of whom feel that a lack of U.S. resolve enabled the Chinese to successful wrest control of Scarbough Shoal by using similar tactics in 2012, could have hoped for more from the summit.

The joint statement from the latest Washington summit is replete with ambition regarding the region’s maritime affairs and it adopted similar language to the statement issued at the March 2+2 meeting. The continued use of “Indo-Pacific,” a term inherited from the Abe-Trump era, demonstrates a shared view that their partnership’s strategic remit extends through the wide maritime space stretching from the eastern shores of Africa to the west coast of the Americas.

Both allies referenced the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and pledged to promote freedom of navigation and a steadfast commitment defend Japan in the Senkaku Islands. They jointly admonished China for acting unlawfully in the South China Sea and seeking to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea. However, there were few specifics and regional maritime partners, including the states astride critical Southeast Asian chokepoints, were left unmentioned.

As it happens, a more detailed roadmap can be found in the April 2019 2+2 statement issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Foreign Minister Kono Taro, and Defense Minister Iwaya Takeshi. In particular, it highlighted “joint exercises and port calls with partners in the region, capacity building in such areas as maritime domain awareness and law enforcement, and the promotion of sustainable economic development and connectivity through quality infrastructure.”  These cabinet-level commitments are built directly on previous agreements such as a 2015 joint statement from Obama and Abe that documented their decision to “coordinate capacity-building assistance for maritime safety and security in the Asia-Pacific region.” Since then, progress has been made but could use a boost given the slow pace and scale of the regional challenges.

The lack of detail may signal that the Biden administration is still finding its feet and prioritizing bigger regional security projects

The lack of detail may signal that the Biden administration is still finding its feet and prioritizing bigger regional security projects such as cementing its strong position on Taiwan and enabling the Quad. Furthermore, in the absence of new instructions, career officials have continued to work on implementing their standing guidance to strengthen bilateral projects to benefit regional maritime affairs.

Still, leadership is essential to setting priorities and senior statements provide steam to sustain motivation among those working at the implementation level. If coordination of the U.S.-Japan alliance in support of Indo-Pacific maritime partners has not been mentioned at the cabinet-level or above for two years, then energy will naturally flow to areas that appear to be a higher priority. Given the wealth of experience in Biden’s Asia team, simply mentioning regional partnership development would not seem to be a bridge too far.

Japan has already sailed out ahead of the United States in terms of support for the regional partners’ maritime security priorities. In October 2020 Suga followed Abe’s precedent by making Southeast Asia his first overseas trip. He arrived in Hanoi 32 days after taking office and pledged to assist with the development of Vietnam’s maritime infrastructure and human capital while reaching agreement on a framework to export Japanese defense equipment including patrol aircraft and radars to advance Vietnam’s maritime surveillance capabilities. In Jakarta, Suga promised infrastructure cooperation in areas such as the construction and operation of a port, development of an offshore gas field, and building connectivity for Indonesia’s outer islands. Suga and Indonesian President Joko Widodo also agreed to promote maritime law enforcement, human resource development and to advance the transfer of defense equipment. They are believed to have their eye on delivering state-of-the-art Japanese frigates to the Indonesian Navy. In contrast, as Biden approaches his 100th day in office, senior Southeast Asian diplomats are noting that he has not yet held a telephone conversation with any of his ASEAN counterparts.

Suga’s actions build on decades of Japanese support for Indo-Pacific maritime infrastructure, safety, and security and Japan is now Southeast Asia’s most trusted maritime partner. According to the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia Survey Report 2021, 67 percent of respondents shared confidence that Japan will “do the right thing” to provide global public goods. Meanwhile, regional trust in the United States lags behind at 48 percent though it has increased from 30 percent in 2020. China and India were at 17 and 20 percent respectively. Confidence in Japan is also high because, for states concerned about being caught in the middle of U.S.-China great power competition, working with Japan is seen as a viable third option. They also appreciate that Japan’s long-standing partnership is squarely aimed at their most immediate needs: developing their maritime economies and safeguarding their maritime space from criminals who illegally harvest resources, smuggle illicit goods, traffic humans, attack shipping, and use the sea to launch terror attacks ashore.

Confidence in Japan is also high because, for states concerned about being caught in the middle of U.S.-China great power competition, working with Japan is seen as a viable third option

But this is not to suggest that the United States is absent from maritime Asia. The U.S. Navy remains a mighty and highly respected force. The Biden administration has already used it to conduct Taiwan Strait transits and Freedom of Navigation Operations at a pace similar to that delivered under Trump and significantly faster than was seen under Obama. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy’s sister services continue efforts to make themselves more potent in the region. U.S. military exercises with regional partners are frequent and sophisticated and U.S. hardware remains in high demand even when it comes with a high price tag. However, military engagement is only one sector of the multidimensional maritime relationships and U.S. assertions of power bring, from the view of many in the region, a mixed bag of welcome pushback and heightened tensions. U.S. civilian agencies are certainly engaged, but the Japanese support for the region’s maritime development remains much larger in scale.

U.S. civilian agencies are certainly engaged, but the Japanese support for the region’s maritime development remains much larger in scale

Managers of the alliance have long recognized that their close relationships, common priorities, and relative strengths should enable efficient cooperation toward synergetic outcomes for maritime Asia. Japanese policy adjustments enabling greater flexibility concerning international security engagements also enabled progress in new areas during Abe’s administration. Alliance exercises in the South China Sea have become routine. The United States and Japan have been facilitating access for each other in the Philippines and Vietnam and conducting a few cooperative capacity-building activities in both of those nations. These early successes suggest opportunity for more allied action. However, when it comes to implementation the American side has been relatively slow to fulfill its potential.

The Biden administration seems wise to focus on its alliance with Japan to achieve shared objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also sensible that ensuring the maritime security necessary for sustaining free and open use of the sea ranks alongside management of North Korea, preventing a Taiwan Strait crisis, and modernizing relationships to develop more advanced economic and technological cooperation as top alliance priorities. Given the duties and responsibilities assigned to coastal states by UNCLOS, the two allies must achieve these desired maritime security endstates by working closely with their regional partners.

In this sense, the summit was a missed opportunity for U.S. leaders to rally alliance energy in support of their Indo-Pacific maritime partners. Given Japan’s solid record in maritime Asia and the fact that the United States cannot do it all, it may not be the worst thing for Japan to move ahead with its efforts to establish safer seas in Asia and to continue to bring along the United States when it can. Better yet would be for the Biden administration to use future meetings with Japan to pick up where things were left off two years ago and reestablish U.S. support for an alliance that works to build the capacity of its maritime friends.

Mr John Frederick Bradford is a senior fellow in the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Mr Bradford holds a Master of Science in Strategic Studies from RSIS and Bachelor of Arts (Magna Cum Laude in Asian Studies) from Cornell University. He retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of commander. His U.S. Navy assignments included service as the deputy director of the 7th Fleet Maritime Headquarters, as country director for Japan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy, and as commanding officer of a ballistic missile defense-capable Aegis destroyer forward deployed to Japan.

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