President Biden was making a point as he welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House on Friday, using the first in-person visit by a foreign leader to emphasize that his administration sees Asia as its highest priority.
The coveted first invitation was intended to reward a strategic ally who was buffeted by transactional and sometimes capricious treatment under President Donald Trump, and to send a signal to China that Biden plans to firm up America’s Asian alliances. Biden plans to follow up with an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in next month.
“There’s no substitute for face-to-face discussions,” Biden said as he and Suga held a news conference in the Rose Garden, Biden’s first such event.
“I affirmed our ironclad support for the U.S.-Japanese alliance and for our shared security,” Biden said. “We committed to working together to take on the challenges from China and on issues like the East China Sea, the South China Sea, as well as North Korea, to ensure a future of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Biden said.
The contrast with China was also plain a few moments later, when Biden spoke of “shared values, including human rights and the rule of law.”
“We’re going to work together to prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st Century and deliver for our people.”
Suga, too, committed to work together for the goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which is diplomatic shorthand for countering Chinese threats to navigation and trade and its territorial claims against its neighbors.
“We also had serious talks about China’s influence over the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and the world at large,” Suga said. “We agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or conversion in the East and South China Seas,” Suga said.
Biden has already sent his secretaries of state and defense to Japan, the strongest U.S. ally in the Pacific region.
Until now, Biden’s initial meetings with other world leaders have all been conducted via video because of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden has not yet traveled overseas as president.
The meeting is a point of pride for Suga, who took office last year. It comes as Japan is promoting its role as host of the pandemic-delayed Olympic Games this summer, but is facing new questions about whether the Games can be held safely given a resurgence of the coronavirus in Tokyo.
The Games may have to be canceled depending on the pandemic, a senior member of Japan’s ruling party said Thursday. The remarks were the first public admission by the ruling party that cancellation or postponement were under serious consideration.
Suga met with Vice President Harris ahead of lengthy meetings at the White House capped by the Rose Garden news conference. All sessions had limited attendance because of pandemic restrictions.
Speaking in the State Dining Room, Suga expressed condolences for the mass shooting in Indianapolis overnight and thanked his host.
“Freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law are universal values that link our alliance,” Suga said through an interpreter.
A variety of Chinese actions, including military moves in the South China Sea and perceived threats to Taiwan are on the agenda, along with human rights concerns.
Biden will tread more lightly on questions of China’s economic reach, which includes deep ties to Japanese businesses, U.S. analysts predicted ahead of the meeting.
In turn, they said Suga was unlikely to press Biden very hard about reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, for which administration officials have shown little appetite.
But mostly, the meeting was designed to link arms at a time when China is flexing its own muscles for the new U.S. leader.
“This is not because they like us, we like them. It is the shift in the U.S. priority,” said Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies and a special foreign policy adviser to the Suga cabinet.
The mutual regard is important, but there is a larger goal for the like-minded democracies, he said, adding, “Of course we don’t name any nation, but the rise of a huge country is the reason why.”
Japan’s standoff with China over a disputed island chain has helped shift Japanese public opinion and official policy toward a more confrontational stance, one that the United States now shares, analysts said.
“Japan has always, always been tougher on China — or more vocal in its concerns about China — than the U.S. since the Obama time,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Under President Barack Obama, he said, Japanese policymakers pressed their American counterparts to take a harder line against China, “so they were relieved when Trump started to play the game more tough on China.”
Biden is now continuing many of Trump’s get-tough policies on China, including leaving punitive tariffs in place, while increasing criticism of China over human rights issues.
The United States and Japan have held joint military exercises for years focused on preparing for the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a flourishing democracy that China claims as a province, but Michishita said civilian policymakers have been slower to address the issue.
“China would make a fuss about it when we talk about Taiwan, so we wouldn’t have talked about Taiwan without the U.S. doing the same at the same time,” he said. “Now we are talking about it, because both the U.S. and Japan are interested and committed to the defense of Taiwan.”
Chris Dodd, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut who is friendly with Biden, was among an unusual bipartisan U.S. delegation visiting Taiwan this week. The group was meeting with the Taiwanese president amid concern over frequent Chinese military flights and other threatening activity.
Biden and Suga also discussed Biden’s strategy review on nuclear-armed North Korea, which U.S. officials said is nearly complete. It is expected to turn the page on Trump’s personal diplomatic outreach to leader Kim Jong-Un, who has menaced Japan with missile launches.
U.S. officials have praised Japan for condemning the recent military coup in Myanmar, but Biden is expected to question Suga about what more Japan will do. The United States has imposed sanctions on Myanmar over the coup, but Japan has been reluctant to do the same.
“We are not expecting any kind of confrontational tone between them about how we deal with Myanmar,” said a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of customary diplomatic anonymity. “We completely share the same concern because we both want to restore democracy in Myanmar and we desperately want to stop the violence there.”
Obama attempted his own “pivot to Asia” after decades of American diplomatic and military focus on Europe and the Middle East, but the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and a variety of crises, including Russia’s seizure of Crimea, overwhelmed the effort.
Biden pointed to the need to train U.S. resources on China as one reason for his announcement this week that remaining U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan this year.
“I think one of the reasons why the president and his team have taken the careful steps on Afghanistan is actually to free up time, attention and resources from our senior leadership and our military to focus on what we believe are the fundamental challenges of the 21st century,” a senior Biden administration official said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House. “They lie fundamentally in the Indo-Pacific.”