US-Japan roll out digital counter to China’s BRI

When US President Joe Biden met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week in Washington, the highly-anticipated meeting was clearly aimed at China’s rising challenge.

While the two sides’ strategic ties were front and center at the face-to-face summit, the heart of their discussions focused on “practical commitments” to contend with China’s rising economic clout, with one eye on its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and another on its related rising tech dominance in 5G.

That was seen in the meeting’s focus on “high-quality” infrastructure projects, beginning with a US$4.5 billion next-generation technology initiative aimed at “promoting secure and reliable 5G networks.”

In a thinly veiled jab at China, Biden emphasized how the new high-tech project will seek to “protect the technologies that will maintain and sharpen our competitive edge” based on “democratic norms that we both share — norms set by democracies, not autocracies.”

The Japanese leader underscored the urgency of a revitalized US-Japan alliance by declaring, “This is a time like no other in which the Japan-US alliance needs to be strong.”

Ahead of Suga’s visit to Washington, an unnamed senior Biden official who spoke with media raised expectations of a “very substantial commitment” by both allies “to work on 5G [infrastructure] and next steps beyond.”

The official said the move aims to counter Chinese behaviors the US sees as “antithetical to the mission of maintaining peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific.

“The United States can only be effective in Asia when the US-Japan relationship is strong and Japan is steady and stable,” the Biden aide added, emphasizing the centrality of Japan to Washington’s China policy.

US President Joe Biden (R) and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan hold a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: Doug Mills / Pool / Getty Images via AFP

Biden announced earlier this year that he has been in conversation with key allies including the United Kingdom to create an alternative to China’s BRI.

“I suggested we should have, essentially, a similar initiative, pulling from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help,” Biden told reporters following his phone conversation with the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month.