Biden hails 'good friend' Kishida, says US fully committed to Japan’s defences

US President Joe Biden (left) and Japan PM Fumio Kishida shake hands at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, on May 23, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS, AFP) - US President Joe Biden on Monday (May 23) endorsed Japan’s plan to beef up its defence capabilities as he and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida committed to working closely to counter China’s growing influence in Asia.

Biden, on his first trip to Asia since taking office, is visiting the region as concern grows about China’s assertiveness and reach across security and supply chains.

The US president commended Kishida’s determination to strengthen Japan’s defence capabilities, the White House said in a statement following their meeting. The two leaders committed to working closely on China’s “increasingly coercive behaviour that runs counter to international law”, it said.

The two were expected to hold a joint news conference.

Separately, public broadcaster NHK said that Biden supported Japan becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The cornerstone of Biden’s two-day visit, which includes meetings with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, in the “Quad” group, will be the launch of an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a broad plan providing an economic pillar for US engagement with Asia.  

“The US-Japan alliance has long been the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, and the United States remains fully committed to Japan’s defence,” Biden said at the beginning of talks with Kishida at the Akasaka Palace in central Tokyo.  

Biden was greeted with a military honour guard that played the anthems of both countries under a bright blue sky.  

Earlier, he met Emperor Naruhito, talking briefly at the palace entrance before being ushered inside.

The White House said Biden offered greetings on behalf of the American people, highlighting the strength of the US-Japan relationship anchored by deep people-to-people ties.

The two nations are expected to discuss Japan’s plans to expand its military capabilities and reach in response to China’s growing might.

“It shows that the United States will strengthen its involvement in the Indo-Pacific region no matter what the circumstances,” Kishida said ahead of their meeting.

The allies are also expected to reconfirm their close ties in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, agreeing that unilateral changes in the status quo by force are unacceptable.

Worries are growing in Asia about an increasingly assertive China, particularly in light of its close ties to Russia, and tensions in particular have been rising around Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

North Korea and regional issues will also be on the agenda, with Biden later on Monday scheduled to meet with the families of Japanese who were abducted years ago to train spies in North Korea. 

But hanging over every step of Biden's tour is fear that unpredictable North Korea will test a nuclear-capable missile or a bomb.

Speculation that this might even happen while Biden was just across the border in Seoul did not materialise. However, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the threat remains.

Echoing Biden's earlier statement that the United States is "prepared for anything North Korea does", Sullivan said the dictatorship has a choice.

"If North Korea acts, we'll be prepared to respond. If North Korea doesn't act, North Korea has the opportunity, as we've said repeatedly, to come to the table."

Pyongyang has so far declined to answer US appeals for dialogue, officials say, even ignoring offers of help to combat a sudden mass outbreak of Covid-19, according to Biden.

And while in Seoul, Biden confirmed he was prepared to meet with Kim Jong Un if the leader-for-life is "sincere", but Sullivan said that remains far off.

"We're not even at step one yet," he said.

Symbolising the apparent one-way conversation, Biden said the only message he has right now for Kim would consist of a single word: "Hello. Period," he said.

Military exercises

Biden spent two days with South Korea's new President Yoon Suk-yeol, with beefing up the military defence against North Korea high on the agenda.

They issued a statement on Saturday saying that "considering the evolving threat" from Pyongyang, they were looking at expanding the "scope and scale" of joint US-South Korean military exercises.

Joint exercises had been scaled back due to Covid-19 and for Biden and Yoon's predecessors, Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, to embark on a round of high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful diplomacy with North Korea.

In contrast to the dovish Moon, Yoon said he and Biden discussed possible "joint drills to prepare for a nuclear attack" and called for more US assets to be deployed to the region.

Any build-up of forces or expansion of joint military exercises would likely enrage Pyongyang, which views the drills as rehearsals for an invasion.

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North Korea has conducted a blitz of sanctions-busting weapons tests this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017, with satellite imagery indicating a nuclear test is looming.

But its weapons testing schedule may also be affected by a raging Covid-19 outbreak.

More than 2.6 million cases of what the regime calls "fever" have been reported since the Omicron variant was first detected in April, state media said Sunday.

Economic ties

Before heading to Japan on Sunday, Biden met with the chairman of Hyundai to celebrate a decision by the South Korean auto giant to invest US$5.5 billion (S$7.6 billion) in an electric vehicle plant in the southern US state of Georgia.

He also met US and South Korean troops alongside Yoon, a schedule that a senior White House official said was able to "reflect the truly integrated nature" of the countries' economic and military alliance.

Biden is also emphasising a broader, almost existential aspect to his trip, saying that Asia is a key battleground in the global "competition between democracies and autocracies".

"We talked in some length about the need for us to make this larger than just the United States, Japan, and Korea, but the entire Pacific and the South Pacific and Indo-Pacific. I think this is an opportunity," Biden said after meeting Yoon.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi maintained on Sunday, however, that US regional involvement was "in essence, a strategy of creating division, inciting confrontation and undermining peace", according to state media outlet Xinhua.

"No matter how it is packaged or disguised, it will inevitably fail in the end," he said.

While China is the main US rival in the Asia regional struggle, Biden illustrated the acute challenge from Russia when he signed a US$40 billion aid bill late on Saturday to help Ukraine fight the invasion by Moscow's forces.

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