President Joe Biden welcomed Japan’s prime minister to the White House on Friday in his first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader, a choice that reflects Biden’s emphasis on strengthening alliances to deal with a more assertive China and other global challenges.
Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also look to counter messaging from Chinese President Xi Jinping that America and democracies in general are on the decline, after the political turmoil and international withdrawal that marked Donald Trump’s presidency.
The Biden administration calls managing U.S. policies toward the Indo-Pacific, where China under Xi is flexing growing economic and military power, the primary challenge for the United States. That helped guide Biden’s decision, announced this week, to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and free the administration to focus more on East Asia.
For Biden and Suga, “our approach to China and our shared coordination and cooperation on that front will be part of the discussion,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. The two will discuss other regional security issues, including North Korea’s nuclear program.
Suga, a farmer’s son who rose to Japan’s highest political office after an early stint as a worker in a cardboard factory, succeeded boss Shinzo Abe last September, after long serving as his chief Cabinet secretary.
Suga expressed eagerness to meet with Biden early on despite global coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) lockdowns. He looks to showcase security commitments with the United States, Japan’s only treaty ally.
Heading to Washington, Suga told reporters he aimed to build “a relationship of trust” with Biden.
The months-old Biden administration, for its part, looks to Suga to keep going on alliance-strengthening moves by both countries.
The two governments have been working to strengthen technology supply chains independent of China during a shortage of semiconductors that’s worrying businesses around the world. Japan is expected to announce an investment in 5G cellular networks, boosting alternatives to China’s network, as part of that supply chain cooperation.
Both countries are expected in coming days to make deeper commitments to cutting climate-wrecking fossil fuel emissions, in line with Biden’s climate summit with 40 world leaders next week.
The Biden administration may also have tougher requests of Japan, including pressing Suga for a rare public statement of support from a Japanese leader for Taiwan. China, which claims the self-governed island of Taiwan as its territory, tested U.S. and Taiwanese resolve weeks into the Biden administration by sending fighter jets and bombers near Taiwan.
Japan long has moved cautiously on steps that might worsen relations with China, though Suga has been more outspoken. His administration pushed its comfort zone in a statement stressing “peace and stability” on the Taiwan Strait. That came during a visit last month by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, which was the Biden administration’s highest-level face-to-face meeting at the time.
World leaders worry about Taiwan as a trigger for conflict between China and the United States.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned his Japanese counterpart in a call ahead of Suga’s visit to see to it that China-Japan relations “do not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries,” according to a Chinese government readout.
Japan’s backing of the U.S. presence in the Pacific is growing as the nations promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision of the democracies to counter China.
But Japan’s economy is intertwined with China’s. That means even “with security concerns on the rise, Japan would have to take a two-pronged approach to balance competition and cooperation,” said Akio Takahara, a professor and China expert at the University of Tokyo.