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Biden Hosts Suga, With China in the Foreground

The White House is pushing for strong anti-China rhetoric in the joint statement to follow Friday’s summit.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quad countries on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quad countries on March 12. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House, Cuba’s Communist Party opens its eighth congress, and U.S. intelligence proves shaky on an alleged Russian bounty program in Afghanistan.

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Biden Hosts Suga at White House Summit

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House Friday, the first in-person visit of a world leader since Biden took office in January.

The two leaders have already been in close consultation as one-half of the so-called Quad group of nations that includes India and Australia. The same theme of crafting a united regional front against China will be at the top of the agenda Friday.

Talking Taiwan. The White House is said to be pushing for Japan to sign off on strong support for Taiwan in a joint statement to be made after the two leaders meet. The announcement would be well timed from Taiwan’s perspective, as the island witnessed the largest incursion of Chinese air force planes into its air defense identification zone this week. For Japan, the issue is more fraught, as Suga may be unwilling to make commitments to Taiwan’s defense.

Biden is also expected to push Suga to adopt tough rhetoric on the treatment of the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang region as well as the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong.

Suga’s challenges. While Suga will be focused on the U.S. relationship Friday, he faces stiff challenges at home. A strict approval process means its COVID-19 vaccine rollout has lagged behind other developed nations. Less than 1 percent of Japan’s residents have been vaccinated so far, putting it in the same league as Uzbekistan and Belarus.

His cabinet’s approval rating rose slightly—from 38.8 percent in February to 42.1 percent in March—but his disapproval rating is almost as high, at 41.5 percent, according to a recent poll.

Suga must also navigate public concern over the country’s hosting of the Olympic Games, rescheduled for this summer after being postponed last year. In a recent Japanese poll, 72 percent of those polled were in favor of postponing, or canceling, the games.

Japan’s balancing act. As Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh writes in his preview of Friday’s summit, joining hands with the United States on China policy will not be easy for Japan. China is Japan’s No. 1 trading partner, and Japan’s exports to China jumped 5.1 percent from 2019 to 2020. As Hirsh observes, any criticism of China could have an immediate economic effect, as Australia found out when its condemnation of Beijing’s actions on Hong Kong and Taiwan led to trade tariffs and boycotts of Australian goods.

What We’re Following Today

Passing the baton. The Cuban Communist Party begins its eighth national congress Friday in Havana. The gathering is expected to mark the end of Raúl Castro’s tenure as first secretary of the party as he makes way for President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Even though the island’s U.S. sanctions-ravaged economy is in crisis, that hasn’t stopped it from producing five COVID-19 vaccine candidates, two of which are in late-stage trials. If found to be effective, Cuba is likely to embark on vaccine diplomacy of its own—offering doses for free or at cost to poor countries.

Bounty bust? In a new slate of Russian sanctions issued on Thursday, the White House appeared to backpedal on an allegation of Russia paying Taliban forces bounties to encourage hits on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The alleged bounty program was treated as fact by the Biden campaign during the 2020 election cycle, even as then-President Donald Trump said it had not reached his desk because U.S. officials doubted its veracity. In a White House fact sheet issued Thursday, the Biden administration said the CIA intelligence on the alleged program was inconclusive and that the agency had assigned it a “low to moderate confidence” level.

Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon assessed the sweeping sanctions package on Thursday. The measures “are less than what some in the United States had hoped for (and some in Russia feared) but leave the door open to a sharp increase in U.S. pressure,” Mackinnon writes.

Xi meets European leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold virtual climate talks Friday ahead of a climate summit of world leaders hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden on April 22. The talks come just as U.S. climate envoy John Kerry wraps up his official trip in Shanghai. China is expected to hold off on making any climate announcements until the Boao Forum, dubbed the Asian Davos, which begins on Sunday.

Keep an Eye On

Eritreans in Tigray. Eritrean troops reportedly remain in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, more than two weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the foreign forces would withdraw. Mark Lowcock, the top humanitarian official at the United Nations, made the assertion at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, adding that the region remains “completely or partially inaccessible” to humanitarian agencies.

Samoa’s new government. Samoa could have new political leadership for the first time in almost 40 years after a surge of support for the newly formed opposition FAST party led to an electoral tie, with FAST and the ruling Human Rights Protection Party winning the same number of parliamentary seats in last week’s general election. The balance of power lies with a single independent lawmaker, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio, who has yet to choose a side. Tuala is awaiting the official election results, expected this weekend, before making his decision.

Odds and Ends

Garden gnomes have become the latest consumer item to fall victim to the pandemic-induced supply chain crunch.

The United Kingdom has seen a gardening boom as residents rediscovered their neglected backyards under lockdown, making the mythical figures a hot commodity. “Gnomes of any type, plastic, stone or concrete, are in short supply,” Ian Byrne, a manager at a gardening store, told the BBC. Byrne has sought out help from suppliers in Europe and China to address the scarcity.

Ian Wylie, the head of the British Garden Center Association, said the recent blockage of the Suez Canal has also led to shortages in gardening items, including decorative gnomes, and that stores were “doing everything” to revive supply chains.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn