President Joe Biden and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga showcased the alliance between their two countries as well as their shared resolve in dealing with China as they met at the White House on Friday in Biden’s first face-to-face talks with a foreign leader as president.

Suga and Biden, who wore masks for their meeting in a visit modified by precautions against the coronavirus, were seeking to challenge messaging from Chinese President Xi Jinping that America and democracies in general are on the decline following the political turmoil and international withdrawal that marked Donald Trump’s presidency.

At a press conference in the Rose Garden after their meeting, Biden stressed U.S. commitments to Japan’s defense and said the alliance — the U.S. is Japan’s only treaty ally — would “prove that democracies can still commit and win” and “deliver for our people.”

Managing the alliance with the United States is one of the trickiest tasks for any leader of Japan, whose economy depends heavily on China and whose security depends on the U.S. Friday’s talks featured unusually frank talk from a Japanese leader against any effort by China to dominate the Indo-Pacific region by “force or coercion.”

Suga also called for peace and stability in Taiwan, and urged China — whose disputed claim to Taiwan is a potential flashpoint in the region and with the United States — to peacefully resolve the dispute. China under Xi has been increasingly deploying its military to assert its sweeping territorial claims, helping prod the United States, Japan and some other Indo-Pacific nations to strengthen their alliance.

Mildly worded as that part of the two leaders’ statement was, it marked the first time a Japanese prime minister had spoken out in a communique with the United States on Taiwan since 1969 talks between Richard Nixon and Eisaku Sato.

Suga told Japanese reporters after his White House visit that the two leaders and their aides had spent much of their meetings, conducted around a table in the White House state dining room, sharing stories of their lives and careers. It left them so engrossed “we ended up not even touching our hamburger steak prepared for us,” Suga said.

“I think we were able to establish a good relationship of trust,” he added.

The Biden administration calls managing U.S. policies toward China and the Indo-Pacific 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.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had 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.”

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 Shinzo Abe as prime minister last September after long serving as his chief Cabinet secretary.

Suga expressed eagerness to meet with Biden early on despite global coronavirus lockdowns.

 

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