US President Joe Biden is hosting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House, as Kishida ends a week-long, diplomatic push to bolster partnerships with allies in Europe and North America in the face of growing pressure from China.
The high-level, bilateral talks in Washington, DC, on Friday come just days after the defence and foreign ministers of both countries met to discuss ways to deepen the “US-Japan alliance”, particularly on matters of security.
“The United States is fully, thoroughly, and completely committed to the alliance,” Biden told Kishida in the Oval Office before their meeting, adding that the nations were working closely on technology and economic issues, including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.
“And we’re stepping up to hold [Russian President Vladimir] Putin accountable for his unprovoked war in Ukraine, and I want to thank you, thank you for your strong leadership on this,” the US president said, describing Kishida as “a real leader” and “a real friend”.
In advance of his discussions with Biden, the Japanese prime minister on Friday also met US Vice President Kamala Harris, who said the United States’s relationship with Japan is “ironclad” and that the two sides would sign an agreement on space cooperation later in the day.
Kishida said topics for his Washington talks included the US-Japan alliance as well as “establishing a free and open Indo-Pacific”, a reference both countries use to describe the efforts to push back against China.
“Japan and the United States are currently facing the most challenging and complex security environment in recent history,” Kishida said alongside Biden before their meeting.
Defence has dominated the Japanese prime minister’s agenda this week, as Kishida met with several Group of Seven (G7) allies and signed a defence agreement with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday to strengthen military ties between the two countries.
That same day, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and their Japanese counterparts, Yoshimasa Hayashi and Yasukazu Hamada, said China presented an “unprecedented” threat to international order and pledged to redouble their efforts to counter it.
“China’s foreign policy seeks to reshape the international order to its benefit and to employ China’s growing political, economic, military, and technological power to that end,” they said in a joint statement.
“This behaviour is of serious concern to the alliance and the entire international community, and represents the greatest strategic challenge in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
Japan has wanted to normalise its “role as a great power”, Amy King, associate professor at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told the AFP news agency of the goals of Kishida’s diplomatic push.
It seeks “the kinds of strategic partnerships and defence relationships that are quite normal for other countries, but which have been largely off-limits to Japan” because of its pacifist post-war constitution, King said.
The Japanese government unveiled a major defence overhaul in December, including doubling spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027 and designating China as the “greatest strategic challenge ever” to Japan’s security.
Kishida’s diplomatic efforts also “reflect that Japan’s national defence cannot be done by Japan alone”, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University who studies crisis management.
“In the past, Japan was able to separate economy and politics”, doing business with countries like China and Russia while enjoying the security protections of its alliance with the US. But worsening geopolitical tensions, including over Russia’s war in Ukraine, mean Japan “cannot do that any more”, Fukuda said.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington, said Kishida was hoping his meeting with Biden would help strengthen Japan’s new approach to its national security, while also bolstering his standing at home.
“His popularity is plummeting but if there’s one area where he feels comfortable, it’s in diplomacy – and that’s because he’s a former foreign minister,” Fisher said.
“So coming to Washington will help. It will also show that the United States is standing beside him as [Japan] consider[s] this new national strategic change to their security and defence.”
Focus on China, North Korea
Since taking office in early 2021, Biden has continued former President Donald Trump’s policy of treating China as the US’s most important geopolitical rival.
Relations between Washington and Beijing also have been strained amid tensions over trade issues, the status of Taiwan, claims to the South China Sea, and a continuing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, among other things.
Biden travelled to Japan in May of last year – his first trip to Asia since taking office in early 2021 – and endorsed the country’s plan to beef up its defence capabilities. At that time, the US president and Kishida also committed to working closely on China’s “increasingly coercive behaviour that runs counter to international law”.
On Friday, Biden and Kishida were expected to discuss security issues and the global economy, and their talks were likely to include control of semiconductor-related exports to China after the US announced strict curbs last year, a senior Biden administration official said.
Kishida has said he backs Biden’s attempt to limit China’s access to advanced semiconductors with export restrictions, but he has not agreed to match sweeping curbs on exports of chip-manufacturing equipment that the US imposed in October.
Daniel Russel, the former top US diplomat for Asia, said North Korea also would likely be high on Kishida’s agenda, “reflecting some anxiety that the war in Ukraine, as well as competition with China, may be causing Washington to discount Pyongyang’s increasing tempo of missile launches — which directly threaten Japan”.
North Korea’s efforts to upgrade military capabilities have included a record number of ballistic missile launches last year, including missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads and with varying ranges that could reach the US mainland, as well as Japan and South Korea.
The current G7 chair, Japan took up a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council on January 1, and it also holds the rotating monthly presidency of the 15-member body for January.