Why are both leaders so keen to meet in person, and why does the meeting matter?
Face-to-face meetings are important in diplomacy
With its traditional focus on national interests and power, international relations scholarship often dismissed personal diplomacy as trivial or inconsequential. However, recent work has highlighted the importance of in-person diplomacy for communicating intentions, building trust, signaling confidence and influencing foreign public opinion.
Seeing virtual diplomacy as an inadequate substitute, Tokyo advocated actively for an in-person summit. In announcing the visit, press secretary Jen Psaki emphasized that the U.S. invitation to Suga as the “first in-person visit from a foreign leader” reflects “the importance we place on our bilateral relationship with Japan, and our friendship and partnership with the Japanese people.” The two governments share a common objective to signal the strength of their alliance, and they are eager to work together to pursue their mutual interests and confront joint concerns.
The meeting may project a favorable image for Biden, who campaigned as a statesman and uniter but is encountering strong Republican opposition to his legislative agenda. This summit has strong, bipartisan support: A Senate resolution, co-sponsored by senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), a former ambassador to Japan, welcomes Suga to the United States and highlights the U.S.-Japan alliance as “a cornerstone of global peace and stability.”
Japanese officials have stated that key goals of the meeting will be to strengthen the bilateral relationship, signal the strength of the alliance relationship and affirm cooperation across a wide range of issues. It also is important to recognize that international relations is a two-level game, where domestic politics matter in myriad ways. Suga will be hoping to boost his domestic standing in Japan, where his government faces criticism for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic despite relatively few cases and deaths.
Japan is a key defender of the liberal international order
Why is Biden prioritizing Japan for his first in-person meeting? Japan is a long-standing democracy and a U.S. security ally, and a sometimes underappreciated partner on a wide range of international issues. It’s also the world’s third-largest economy. Japan has gradually loosened restrictions on its military capabilities and deepened security cooperation with U.S. military forces.
And Japan has become a crucial supporter of the liberal international order, to which Biden seeks to recommit in the wake of the Trump presidency. Over the past four years, the Trump administration openly criticized and undermined core pillars of the order — free trade, democracy and international institutions. Japan responded by stepping in to resuscitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, articulate the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, deepen cooperation under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and pursue a geoeconomic strategy to counter China’s economic clout.
Japan is thus a crucial partner as the Biden administration seeks to revamp U.S. foreign policy and reorient toward East Asia — and manage rocky relations with China. Japan also may increasingly be willing to move beyond its quiet diplomacy and join the United States in condemning human rights abuses in China and Myanmar.
The United States and Japan also seek major changes in climate and energy policy
A further issue that binds Biden and Suga is climate change. Biden quickly reversed President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change, and his infrastructure plan seeks large investments in green energy. Suga also has emphasized climate change as a key issue for his government, committing to net-zero emissions by 2050. This is an important change from the Abe government, which did little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and received widespread criticism for promoting coal-fired power plants.
Putting climate change and clean energy front and center is a way for the two leaders to distinguish themselves from their predecessors and develop new areas of bilateral cooperation. Enhanced U.S.-Japan energy cooperation, for instance, plays into a larger geostrategic response, both in the region and around the world. As the United States and Japan seek to present an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, energy cooperation will become an important area for collaboration, along with other areas of infrastructure building.
And there’s unfinished business from the Trump years
The summit also will provide an opportunity for leadership and cooperation on the pandemic, which has revealed shortcomings in global health cooperation and diplomacy and raised questions about the resiliency of democracy in the face of major crises. Japan has promoted the merits of its own response, which emphasizes contact tracing and preventing clusters. It also will seek further vaccine cooperation to build on the Quad’s vaccine initiative to finance the manufacture of U.S.-developed vaccines in India with support from Japan and Australia.
And there’s plenty of unfinished business from the Trump administration. The 2019 bilateral trade agreement postponed difficult issues such as auto tariffs, and Japanese officials hope to bring the United States back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership framework. Aside from reversing U.S. disengagement, Japan sees an opportunity to repair the damage and cooperate on practical changes to strengthen the international institutional architecture.
There’s a lot at stake — Friday’s summit will lay out a cooperative agenda and set the tone for the bilateral relationship under the two leaders. Suga also probably will issue an invitation for Biden to attend the Tokyo Olympics, which is moving ahead this summer. A Biden visit may help soften public opposition to the games, which has intensified because of Japan’s slow vaccine rollout and sexist remarks by organizing officials. An in-person meeting in Tokyo may also benefit Suga politically as he considers the timing of the next lower house election, which he must hold before October.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Sen. Bill Hagerty. We regret the error.
Phillip Y. Lipscy is associate professor in the department of political science and Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, where he also directs the Centre for the Study of Global Japan. He is co-editor with Takeo Hoshi of The Political Economy of the Abe Government and Abenomics Reforms (Cambridge University Press, 2021).