WASHINGTON â€” President Joe Biden was welcoming 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 co-ordination and co-operation 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 COVID-19 lockdowns. The pandemic is changing the normal routine for a visit by a foreign leader, so that Biden won’t be hosting Suga for a meal, Psaki said.
Suga looks to showcase security commitments with the United States, Japan's only treaty ally. He expected to be "discussing a wide range of challenges … and reconfirm the bond of our alliance," he said Friday at a meeting with Vice-President Kamala Harris, ahead of his talks with Biden.
"The Japan-U.S. alliance needs to be strong,” he added.
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 co-operation.
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 Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, which was the Biden administration’s highest-level face-to-face meeting at the time.
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 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 co-operation," said Akio Takahara, a professor and China expert at the University of Tokyo.
Japan considers China's growing military activity as well as its broad territorial claims to be a security threat. Japan is itself locked in a dispute with China over Beijing's claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.
Elsewhere, Tokyo has watched with concern as China has built military installations on disputed territory it claims in the South China Sea.
U.S. ships regularly conduct so-called freedom of navigation operations, sailing into international waters that China claims as its own.
President Barack Obama was seen as cajoling China, in hopes of encouraging reforms. After initially praising Xi, Trump later took on China head-on and solo, with tariffs and insults, while building a golf-buddy relationship with Suga's predecessor, Abe.
Biden has taken a different approach, reaching out to allies to try to form united fronts.
China also has taken note of the Biden administration’s support for reviving a loose four-country coalition with Japan, India and Australia, known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. Biden and Suga on Friday are expected to announce steps through the Quad framework to help India produce COVID-19 vaccines.
Formed initially to co-ordinate relief efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Quad had faded away for a time in part over concerns that its existence would provoke China, by suggesting the four countries were ganging up against it, noted Tanvi Madan, an expert on India and its relations in the Indo-Pacific at the Brookings Institution.
But "lately, all the things we worried about that China would do if they were provoked, they’re already doing anyway," Madan said.
Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City and Yamaguchi from Tokyo. Josh Boak contributed from Washington.
Ellen Knickmeyer, Mari Yamaguchi And Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press