Biden receives Suga at White House, as US, Japan work to strengthen alliance

U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Friday received the Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga in the Oval Office for an official working visit.

The meeting is the first in-person bilateral meeting with a foreign leader under the Biden administration.

Both leaders were expected to discuss global issues, including the coronavirus, pandemic, trade, climate change, security, China and the South China Sea.

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, delivers remarks during an event to announce the President’s Combatant Commanders nominees Monday, March 8, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, delivers remarks during an event to announce the President’s Combatant Commanders nominees Monday, March 8, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

For the U.S., the U.S.-Japan relationship is its “most important alliance,” and President Biden hopes to build “a long and strong partnership” with Prime Minister Suga.  

“The United States can only be effective in Asia when the U.S.-Japan relationship is strong and Japan is stable and free,” a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday.

To strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship, the U.S. seeks “a broader, deeper set of engagements across technology, policy, health-related matters, climate, and also regional security.”

On technology, for example, the two countries are expected to announce a $2 billion partnership on 5G infrastructure. 

Because the U.S. and Japan “share overarching values and views” on mutual challenges, the meetings today will be mainly an opportunity for Biden administration officials and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to “inform” one another on areas of both “fundamental agreement” and “where [they] might have differences.”

In their meeting together, President Biden and Prime Minister Suga, as both are serving in their first year as heads of their respective countries, will “have a chance to really get to know one another, to build trust and confidence and really take what is our most important alliance to the next level,” the senior administration official said.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who herself has South Asian roots, was the first to meet with Prime Minister Suga followed by President Biden, then larger meetings with senior officials, and later members of the Cabinet.

“Thank you very much. I’d like to, first of all, express my sincere gratitude for inviting me as the first foreign guest to Washington, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, since the inauguration of the Biden administration,” Prime Minister Suga said at a meeting with Vice President Harris. “I’m also very delighted to have the opportunity to meet with you, Vice President Harris, face to face today and have a wonderful conversation. So I very much look forward to it. Japan highly praises and appreciates that the Biden-Harris administration puts high importance on cooperating with its allies and partners.”

He added: “There is no other time than today when the Japan-U.S. alliance needs to be strong. This is an alliance that is connected by universal values such as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Today, I very much look forward to discussing with you, Vice President Harris, as well as with President Biden later on, regarding important challenges — a wide range of challenges –that both Japan and the United States face and reconfirm the bond of our alliance.”

The meetings come as the U.S., in consultation with Japan, is concluding a review of its North Korea policy. Of concern there are North Korea’s middle- to long-range missiles, nuclear program, and Japanese abductees held in North Korea.

Also to be discussed is Chinese military aggression, Taiwanese security; and Japan-South Korea relations, which have recently deteriorated – and which the U.S. sees as fundamentally impeding effective policy in Northeast Asia, according to the senior administration official.

In perhaps a change from past U.S. administrations, the U.S doesn’t expect Japan “to fully align” with its policy. Although both countries seek to “send a clear signal” of disagreement with “some of the steps China is taking” relating to regional security, the U.S. aims to be respectful of Japan’s close economic relationship to China.

According to a U.S. Senior administration official yesterday, “the careful steps [the President]  has taken on Afghanistan” are in concert with the careful diplomacy he and other senior officials have undertaken leading up to the meetings today.

To build support for the meetings today, U.S. State and Defense Secretaries met in-person with their counterparts in Japan and South Korea. Biden met virtually with members of the Quad – U.S., India, Japan, and Australia, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III followed up with his own meeting in India. Although no major foreign policy bills have yet been passed, bi-partisanship, it would appear, “is seen most predominantly” in U.S. policy towards the Asia- Pacific.

Domestically, Biden and members of Congress are working to address both issues relevant to the Asian American and Pacific Island (AAPI) community and problems America has with this community. In a broad show of support, the Senate passed the “Hate Crimes Act” with 98 votes.

Before a meeting with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee, Biden yesterday said: “We need to stand with the AAPI community,” and reaffirmed his commitment to racial equity in government and the “whole-of-government response” to issues impacting the AAPI community, which he urged others to acknowledge was “vital” and “very diverse”.

Former President Barack Obama – who spent some of his youth in Indonesia,  a country in Southeast Asia – once referred to himself as “the first Pacific president”. No longer would the U.S. be mired in thankless interventions in the “Middle East to Asia,” he reasoned, as U.S. foreign policy focused on the Asian continent, in particular its eastern front, whose economic sun had risen – and was rising still.

Despite some notable achievements under Obama, the vision of a ‘Pivot to East Asia’ was not fully achieved. President Trump, although consumed by issues of fair trade and nuclear security in the region, did not further the broad goals of his predecessors; he mainly strained alliances and inflamed tensions in the region.

Biden, meanwhile, has ripped the strategic Band-Aid off the decades long ‘War on Terror,’ announcing a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This, it is hoped, will “free up” resources particularly at the senior-level, to focus on the Asia-Pacific “where the big issues are playing out.”

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