Joe Biden welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House on Friday for talks that touched on the growing economic and military threat posed by China, the coronavirus pandemic, Indo-Pacific security, technology policy and even this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
The sit-down was Biden’s first in-person tête-à-tête with a foreign leader since taking office in January. Missing was the pomp and circumstance that often accompany visits by a foreign dignitary – a nod to the reality of carrying out the business of the two countries in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
Biden and Suga both wore face masks and practiced social distancing, as did their entourages. The meal usually served at high-level gatherings was scrapped. Only a handful of journalists were allowed into the Rose Garden news conference at the end of the daylong visit – and those who were let in were spaced apart.
“We had a very productive discussion,” Biden said, emphasizing that there’s no substitution for face-to-face talks between world leaders.
Biden and Suga reaffirmed their commitment to the alliance between the two nations, announced a new partnership on health security to prepare for the next pandemic, promised aggressive actions to deal with climate change and vowed to work together to take on the challenges from China and North Korea.
“We’re committed to defending and advancing our shared values, including human rights and the rule of law,” Biden said.
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The meeting itself was a signal of how important the Biden administration views Japan as an important regional ally as the U.S. prepares to confront China over issues such as human rights and unfair trade practices.
“The United States can only be effective in Asia when the U.S.-Japan relationship is strong and Japan is steady and stable,” a senior administration official told reporters before Suga’s arrival.
Suga’s visit to Washington came as Japan is experiencing a wave of COVID-19, with the number of cases topping more than 500,000 last week. Japan depends entirely on imports for its coronavirus vaccine supply and trails many other developed nations in terms of inoculations. Just 1% of its population has been vaccinated against the disease.
Suga received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week. Other Japanese officials traveling with him to Washington also were vaccinated.
Biden and other administration officials who met with the Japanese leader already have been vaccinated.
At the center of the discussions between Biden and Suga were China and how to manage the peace and stability of regional seas, including the Taiwan Strait. China has been sending warplanes into the area in a show of force intended to pressure Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing considers to be part of its territory.
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Neither country is looking to escalate tensions or provoke China, the senior administration official said, but at the same time, they want to send a clear signal that some of the steps that China is taking run counter to the mission of maintaining peace and stability.
Japan considers China’s growing military activity in the region, as well as its broad territorial claims, to be a security threat. Japan is itself locked in dispute with China over Beijing’s claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.
Yet Japan finds itself in a delicate position because China remains Japan’s largest trading partner. The Japanese government has condemned China’s repression of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang but has resisted imposing sanctions.
At Friday’s news conference, Suga said he and Biden agreed on the need for each country to engage “in frank dialogue” with China.
Suga said he also brought up the recent wave of violence directed at Asian people across the United States.
“President Biden agreed that discrimination by race cannot be permitted in any societies,” he said, calling Biden’s remarks encouraging and saying they “renewed my confidence in American democracy once again.”
Suga said he told Biden that he views the Tokyo Olympics, which open on July 23 despite concerns over whether the games will be safe, as “a symbol of global unity” and that Japan will proceed “with careful and full preparation.”
The games were postponed a year ago because of the pandemic. Tourists will not be allowed into Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games because of the pandemic.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: The Associated Press.