Joe Biden and Fumio Kishida hail US-Japan ties, announce 70 deals as they vow to continue China dialogue

In substance and symbolism, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday conveyed the strong ties binding their two nations as they announced a raft of agreements spanning defence, space, culture, diplomacy and research.

The show of unity – ahead of a trilateral summit Thursday with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr – comes as tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific region and Japan takes a more robust role in countering China while Washington grapples with wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

“The US-Japan alliance is a beacon to the entire world,” Biden declared at a press conference with Kishida in the White House Rose Garden. “There is no limit [to] what our countries and our people can do together. So thank you for your partnership, your leadership and your friendship.”

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The two leaders outlined in broad terms some 70 agreements, many reflecting a more muscular China.

Fumio Kishida’s state visit to the White House is the first by a Japanese prime minister in nine years. Photo: EPA-EFE

“We agreed that our two countries will continue to respond to challenges concerning China through close coordination,” Kishida said through a translator, citing the importance of a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.

“At the same time, we confirmed the importance of continuing our dialogue with China and cooperating with China on common challenges.”

Biden said the US and China would continue to improve lines of communication, and in lengthy discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping – most recently last week – the presidents agreed to maintain personal contact on any issue so nothing slips “between the cup and the lip, so we know exactly what the other team is thinking”.

The US leader added that America’s relationship with Japan was “truly defensive”, not aimed at any one nation or aimed at threatening the region.

With eye on China, Biden-Kishida meeting to set ‘remarkable’ outcomes: insiders

Kishida, voicing a somewhat tougher line on China than Biden, said Japan and the US would confront excess capacity problems, supply-chain vulnerabilities or attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion.

But the partners would also seek to liaise with Beijing in tackling global warming and other shared challenges.

“We will continue to call on China to fulfil its responsibilities as a major power,” the 66-year-old Japanese leader said. “We will continue to seek close communication with China at all levels.”

Biden and Kishida discussed a variety of issues, from North Korean ballistic missile threats and Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang to the war in Ukraine, the plight of hostages in Gaza and the need for a two-state solution in the Middle East.

Of the agreements announced on Wednesday, those relating to defence promised to fundamentally change the bilateral military relationship and alter the nature of the countries’ unified command structure.

They entail modernising command-and-control structures, deepening cooperation on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as increasing interoperability and joint planning to “work together in a seamless and effective way”.

Biden also noted the US, Japan and Australia would create an “air missile and defence architecture”, including missile-defence information exchange to counter growing air and missile threats and “address escalatory or provocative activities around Japan”.

“This is the most significant upgrade in our alliance since it was first established,” the American president said.

In addition, Tokyo and Washington have pledged closer defence manufacturing ties, such as the possibility of jointly producing advanced and interoperable missiles for “air defence and other purposes” and exploring opportunities for future fighter-pilot training and readiness.

The move enables Japan to help fill in gaps in the US military-industrial infrastructure. Skilled-labour shortages, design issues and supply-chain problems have left many US defence programmes years late like F-35 Strike Fighter military jets and Virginia-class submarines.

Japanese prime minister talks tech cooperation with US as state visit begins

More generally, Biden and Kishida on Wednesday underscored their nations’ growing ties by highlighting Tokyo’s role in global diplomacy and development along with the island nation’s evolution from being a largely defensive “regional” partner to an American “global” partner.

Japan’s assertive stance in recent years has seen it pledge to double its defence spending by 2027; elevate its presence within the Group of 7 nations; show unwavering economic and political support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion; and solidify ties with Seoul, a traditional antagonist.

That paved the way last August for the historic US-Japan-South Korean trilateral meeting, forged as part of the Biden administration’s latticework of groupings to counter China.

Another grouping will be added on Thursday with the formal announcement of a Japan-US-Philippines trilateral.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr speaks in Manila on Wednesday before flying to Washington for a meeting with Joe Biden and Fumio Kishida. Photo: EPA-EFE

“Today’s Japan is no longer the timid and inward-looking nation that counted on its embrace of pacifism and on American muscle to insulate it from external threats,” said Daniel Russel of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former State Department official.

“Instead of stepping back, as it once did, Japan is stepping up to meet the array of international challenges,” Russel added.

This has transpired as China has widened its island-building activity in the South China Sea, increasingly challenged US “freedom-of-navigation” flights and voyages, deployed water cannons and other tactics against Philippine vessels and greatly expanded its coastguard and naval fleet in recent years.

Beijing maintains that much of the contested South China Sea is solely its territory.

Further afield, the US-Japan agreements announced on Wednesday extend to space.

Defence, diplomacy expected to top Biden-Kishida summit as China looms

Biden and Kishida outlined the future participation of two Japanese astronauts on future Artemis moon-landing missions – one of whom would become the first non-American to walk on the moon – plus a US$2 billion moon rover project overseen by Toyota.

Other deliverables covered a range of concerns: seeking authority so that US naval vessels can be repaired in Japanese shipyards; better cooperation on cybersecurity; boosting humanitarian response abilities; and closer research ties involving artificial intelligence, quantum and related technologies.

Kishida hopes the White House pomp and circumstance, state dinner and pageantry will bolster his sagging electoral support back home as he battles scandal in his ruling party, analysts said.

Biden, for his part, hopes this week will strengthen his Indo-Pacific strategy, help stem China and set him apart as a statesman in contrast to Trump, his likely Republican presidential opponent this fall and an avowed isolationist on foreign policy.

How will China react as Biden readies for ‘Camp David’ with Kishida, Marcos?

While the US and Japan revealed a series of collaborative private sector plans, a lingering irritant in the relationship has been Nippon Steel’s US$41 billion bid for US Steel after the Biden administration signalled it would block the deal on national security grounds.

The American president has looked to steelworkers and other union members for support in the coming November election.

Kishida said he hoped the two companies could find a solution amid continued strong foreign investment by both countries in each other’s economies.

“We wish to cement this win-win relationship,” he added. “Japan will always stand firm with the United States.”

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