Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has become the first foreign leader to hold face-to-face talks with U.S. President Joe Biden since the latter assumed office, meeting at the White House for discussions that are expected to focus heavily on countering China.
Biden told reporters before heading into the talks at the White House that he was “really pleased to welcome such a close ally and good partner” for the one-day summit.
Suga said he was grateful for the meeting and reaffirmed the “new and tight bond” between Japan and the United States.
Biden, who took office in January, has focused on reviving the alliance, as well as U.S. involvement in multilateral institutions, which were often criticized or shunned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Suga is the first foreign leader to visit the White House since Biden took office.
The meeting underscores the importance of the alliance between the two countries, particularly as their rival, China, grows in strength and aggressiveness.
“We have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we're facing from an increasingly assertive China,” Biden said earlier this week as he explained his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Japan recently joined the U.S. and other countries in calling out Beijing’s human rights abuses and incursions into disputed areas of the East and South China Seas, seen as a departure from a longstanding trade and economics-centered approach.
China, however, is Japan’s longtime rival and largest trading partner, leading some analysts to predict Suga will refrain from overtly antagonizing Beijing during his meeting with Biden.
Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA that while the United States and Japan will want to present a united front on China, “both governments understand that this is a delicate moment in the relationship with China” and “they don't want to incite or provoke activities that they don't desire.”
Biden and Suga are also expected to discuss other regional security issues, including North Korea's nuclear program.
Japan’s ambassador to the U.S., Koji Tomita, recently told VOA the need for a stronger U.S.-Japanese alliance and a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region will be top issues at the summit.
Tomita said Japan is “very encouraged” by Biden’s active engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, citing last month’s virtual Quad Summit, in which Biden hosted the leaders of Japan, Australia and India.
“The international order is being challenged in various ways, so we hope to continue having specific discussions on the ways that Japan and the U.S. can take initiative in realizing our shared vision,” he added.
Before Suga’s meeting with Biden, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry warned Japan against "being misled by some countries holding biased views against China."
Earlier this month, China also sent a naval strike group near Okinawa, where the U.S. has troops, a signal Beijing is prepared to counter the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Japan hosts approximately 55,000 U.S. troops. The two sides routinely describe their alliance as the “cornerstone” of peace and stability in Asia.
William Gallo contributed to this story from Seoul, Natalie Liu from Washington.