Japan’s Suga visits for Biden’s first White House summit; China tops agenda

US Vice-President Kamala Harris (right) hosts Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of a bilateral meeting in Washington.
US Vice-President Kamala Harris (right) hosts Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of a bilateral meeting in Washington.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Joe Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday (April 16) as the first foreign leader to visit his White House, underscoring Tokyo’s central role in US efforts to counter China’s growing assertiveness.

Biden welcomed Suga for a one-day summit that offered the Democratic president a chance to work further on his pledge to revitalise US alliances that frayed under his Republican predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

With China topping the agenda, the meeting was expected to yield steps for diversifying supply chains seen as over-reliant on Beijing and a US$2 billion (S$2.6 billion) commitment from Japan to work with the United States on alternatives to the 5G network of Chinese firm Huawei, a senior US official said.

Biden and Suga also planned to discuss human rights issues related to China, including crackdowns in Hong Kong and on Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, the official said.

The summit, Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader as president, is expected to produce a formal statement on Taiwan, a Chinese-claimed, self-ruled island under increasing military pressure from Beijing, said the official, who did not want to be identified.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden would address with Suga China’s “increasingly coercive action” on Taiwan, which is China’s most sensitive territorial issue.

It would be the first joint statement on Taiwan by US and Japanese leaders since 1969. However, it appears likely to fall short of what Washington has been hoping from Suga, who inherited a China policy that sought to balance security concerns with economic ties when he took over as premier last September.

In a statement after a March meeting of US-Japan officials, the two sides “underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and shared “serious concerns” about human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The U.S. official said that both countries, while not wanting to raise tensions or provoke China, were trying to send a clear signal that Beijing’s dispatch of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone was incompatible with maintaining peace and stability.

A Japanese foreign ministry official said this week it had not been decided whether there would be a joint statement and two Japanese ruling party lawmakers familiar with the discussions said officials have been divided over whether Suga should endorse a strong statement on Taiwan.

The US official said Washington would not “insist on Japan somehow signing on to every dimension of our approach” and added: “We also recognise the deep economic and commercial ties between Japan and China and Prime Minister Suga wants to walk a careful course, and we respect that.”

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that China has expressed solemn concern about what he called “collusion” between Japan and the United States, and the countries should take China’s concerns seriously.

Suga meets Harris

Suga arrived at the West Wing doors in a black sports utility vehicle flying US and Japanese flags. The driveway was lined with a flag-bearing military honor guard.

He met earlier with Vice President Kamala Harris, and following Oval Office talks with Biden the two leaders were due to hold a joint news conference. On Friday morning, Suga participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris (right) and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speak on a balcony during their meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House. PHOTO: AFP

“Japan highly praises and appreciates that the Biden-Harris administration puts high importance on cooperating with its allies and partners,” Suga told reporters as he began talks with Harris.

“There is no other time than today when the Japan-US alliance needs to be strong,” he added, citing “a wide range of challenges.”

Harris said they would discuss “our mutual commitment in the Indo-Pacific.”

With the Suga meeting and another planned summit with South Korea in May, Biden hopes to energise joint efforts with Australia, India and Japan, in a grouping known as the Quad, as well as with South Korea, to counter both China and longtime US foe North Korea.

It requires a delicate balancing act given Japan and South Korea’s economic ties with China and currently frosty relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

Also expected to figure into the White House discussions are the summer Olympics due to be held in Tokyo. Psaki said the administration understands the careful considerations Japan is weighing as it decides whether to go ahead with the games. Japan is grappling with rising coronavirus infections with fewer than 100 days from the planned start.

The emphasis on Japan’s key status could boost Suga ahead of an election this year, but some politicians are pushing him for a tougher stance towards Beijing as it increases maritime activities in the East and South China Seas and near Taiwan.

The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada have all imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for alleged abuses in Xinjiang and some Japanese lawmakers think Tokyo should adopt its own law allowing it to do the same, even as Japanese executives worry about a Chinese backlash.

China denies any human rights violations, but Washington says Beijing is perpetrating a genocide in Xinjiang.