US and Japanese national flags were displayed in front of the Palace Hotel Tokyo on May 25, 2019 prior to the state visit of former US President Donald Trump.

Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images

US President Joe Biden will meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday – and political analysts say China’s growing influence is likely to be high on the agenda.

The two heads of state and government will meet in Washington for the first personal summit between the US president and a foreign head of state or government since his inauguration in January. The meeting comes when the US tries to challenge China on issues ranging from human rights to unfair trade practices.

“Rebuilding US alliances and competing with China are at the core of Biden’s foreign policy. Meeting Suga in person signals that Japan is a linchpin of both efforts,” said Jonathan Wood, director and senior US analyst at the Consultancy, Control Risks, emailed CNBC.

Against China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Biden and Suga are expected to discuss the US-Japan security partnership and other potential areas of cooperation during their meeting. This could include climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and cross-strait stability, analysts said.

… the best way for Washington to compete with Beijing’s economic influence in the Indo-Pacific is to offer countries in the region a more attractive development option.

One possible outcome of the summit is an infrastructure plan that focuses on quality projects like 5G high-speed internet and clean energy, Nikkei Asia reported last week.

Such an infrastructure cooperation between the US and Japan could compete with China’s massive Belt and Road initiative, the report said.

The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s ambitious program to build physical and digital infrastructure connecting hundreds of countries from Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Many critics believe that the signing of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy is to expand his country’s global influence.

“Creating an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative is important to Biden’s overall foreign policy agenda in the Indo-Pacific,” Neil Thomas, an analyst with the Eurasia Group risk advisory firm, told CNBC via email.

“That’s because the best way for Washington to compete with Beijing’s economic clout in the Indo-Pacific is to offer countries in the region a more attractive development option,” he added.

Even before he was elected president, Biden had criticized China for funding dirty fossil fuel projects through the Belt and Road Initiative. He raised the possibility of working with allies to offer alternative sources of funding for low-carbon energy projects.

Japan’s balancing act

Japan is a key US ally in Asia, where Chinese influence has increased in recent years.

The Biden government has given Japan priority in its diplomatic activities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Last month, Biden practically met with leaders of what is known as the Quad Alliance, of which Japan is a part. Some analysts said the informal strategic alliance – which includes the US, Australia and India – could be a way to counter China’s influence.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also visited Tokyo to meet with their Japanese counterparts last month.

But Japan is walking a fine line between the US – its most important security partner – and China – its largest economic partner. And the potential for the US and Japan to get closer is not lost in Beijing.

Last week, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi on a phone call that “Japan should look at China’s development with a more positive mentality”.

Prior to Wang’s remarks, Beijing criticized the US-Japan joint statement issued during Blinken and Austin’s visit to Tokyo. The statement raised concerns about Chinese behavior in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, which “is inconsistent with the existing international order”.

Beijing shot back, saying the statement “maliciously attacks China’s foreign policy” and “openly interferes with its internal affairs”.

For Japan, “the current US-China balance requires a thorough understanding of the intent and scope of US action,” said Wood of Control Risks.

Thomas of the Eurasia Group said Japan would no longer support the US position on human rights issues and policies in order to selectively “decouple” from the Chinese economy.