NATIONAL NEWS

Biden welcomes Prime Minister Kishida and praises Japan’s growing clout on the international stage

Apr 10, 2024, 2:09 AM | Updated: 11:50 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden praised Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s “bold leadership” on a series of global crises as he welcomed the Japanese leader to the White House on Wednesday for wide-ranging talks that touched on the delicate security situation in the Pacific, the war in Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict and more.

Kishida’s official visit, which will include a glitzy state dinner at the White House on Wednesday evening, completes the Democratic administration’s feting of the leaders of the Quad, the informal partnership among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India that the White House has focused on elevating since Biden took office. As administration officials put it, they saved the most pivotal relationship for last.

“The unbreakable alliance between Japan and the United States is the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and around the world,” Biden said as he welcomed Kishida to a pomp filled arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn.

The visit also marks the realization of Japan’s transformation from regional player to that of global influencer — with senior Biden administration officials noting appreciatively there is little the U.S. does across the globe that Tokyo doesn’t support. They pointed to Japan’s eagerness to take a leading role in trying to bolster Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and with the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

“The cooperation between our countries bound together by common values and commitment has become a global one with the scope and depth covering outer space and the deep sea,” Kishida said. “Today the world faces more challenges and difficulties than ever before. Japan will join hands with our American friends and together we will lead the way in tackling the challenges of the Indo-Pacific region and the world, while tirelessly developing the relationship.”

Kishida also announced that Japan is giving 250 cherry trees to the U.S. to mark America’s coming 250th birthday in 2026.

Biden and Kishida are both confronting difficult political headwinds on the home front while trying to navigate increasingly complicated problems on the global stage. Like Biden, Kishida has been dogged by low approval ratings for much of his tenure.

Biden’s reelection effort has been shadowed by an American electorate anxious about inflation, unease among some Democrats over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, and concerns about whether at 81 he’s too old to serve another four years. The U.S. economy got another blip of dour data on Wednesday with the government reporting that consumer inflation ticked up last month, boosted by gas, rents, auto insurance and other items.

Kishida, meanwhile, is dealing with a Japanese economy that slipped to the world’s fourth-largest after it contracted in the last quarter of 2023 and fell behind Germany. Polls in Japan show that support for Kishida, who was elected in 2021, has plunged as he deals with a political funds corruption scandal within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

“For President Biden, this is, of course, a chance to highlight and cement progress in the relationship, the most important bilateral alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It’s a chance to sustain urgency and momentum in this relationship,” said Christopher Johnstone, a former national security official in the Biden administration who is now the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “For Kishida, it’s a chance to showcase his ties to the U.S., to prop up support at home.”

There are differences in the U.S.-Japan relationship. The visit comes after Biden announced last month that he opposes the planned sale of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel to Nippon Steel of Japan. Biden argued in announcing his opposition that the U.S. needs to “maintain strong American steel companies powered by American steelworkers.”

At their Rose Garden press conference following their private Oval Office talks, Biden and Kishida sidestepped addressing in detail their discussion about the prospective U.S. Steel acquisition. Biden said he stood by his commitment to American workers and fostering the Japanese alliance. Kishida noted the extensive investment both nations have made into each other’s economy and his hope for creating more “win-win” situations.

The leaders also announced plans to upgrade U.S.-Japan military relations, with both sides looking to tighten cooperation amid concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s increasing military assertiveness in the Pacific. Biden said that the structural updates would help set a “new benchmark for our military cooperation across a range of capabilities.”

Kishida and Biden also confirmed Japan’s participation in NASA’s Artemis moon program as well as its contribution of a moon rover developed by Toyota Motor Corp. and the inclusion of two Japanese astronauts in the mission, including one who will land on the moon.

Biden heaped praise on Japan for its significant increase in defense spending and has tightened cooperation on economic and security matters throughout Kishida’s tenure.

Japan was quick to step up in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, join the U.S. and other Western allies in mounting aggressive sanctions on Moscow, and Japanese automakers Mazda, Toyota and Nissan announced their withdrawal from Russia.

Tokyo has been one of the largest donors to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion, and Japan has surged its defense spending amid concern about China’s military assertiveness.

As part of its increased defense, Japan agreed to acquire U.S.-made Tomahawks and other long-range cruise missiles that can hit targets in China or North Korea under a more offensive security strategy. Japan, Britain and Italy also began a collaboration on a next-generation jet fighter project.

“The prime minister is a visionary and courageous leader,” Biden said. “When Russia began its brutal invasion of Ukraine two years ago, he did not hesitate to condemn sanctions and isolate Russia and provide billions assistance to Ukraine.”

Biden also credited Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for working to repair frosty relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Relations have rapidly thawed over the last two years amid shared concerns about China’s assertiveness in the Pacific and North Korea’s persistent nuclear threats. Biden last year hosted the two leaders at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.

The Japan-South Korea relationship is a delicate one because of differing views of World War II history and Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

Biden and Kishida also told reporters they were open to direct talks between Japan and North Korea over the abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s and other issues. Kishida’s previous calls for talks have been rejected by Pyongyang.

In 2002, Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, told then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens and allowed five of them to return to Japan. But Japan believes hundreds may have been taken and some remain alive. Biden called Japan’s attempts to set up a leader-to-leader summit with North Korea a “good thing,” and he reiterated his administration’s willingness for its own talks without preconditions.

Kishida will remain in Washington on Thursday to take part in a U.S.-Japan-Philippines summit, at which China’s increasing aggressive action in the region will loom large over the talks.

Relations between China and the Philippines have been repeatedly tested by skirmishes involving the two nations’ coast guard vessels in the disputed South China Sea. Chinese coast guard ships also regularly approach disputed Japanese-controlled East China Sea islands near Taiwan.

“The main intent of this trilateral agreement is for us to be able to continue to flourish, to be able to help one another, and … to keep the peace in the South China Sea and the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told reporters before departing for Washington on Wednesday.

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AP writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Michelle L. Price in Washington contributed to this story.

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Biden welcomes Prime Minister Kishida and praises Japan’s growing clout on the international stage