Joe Biden has sought to present a united front with Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, to counter an increasingly assertive China as the US president held his first face-to-face White House summit since taking office.
Biden hosted Suga for talks on Friday that offered the Democratic president a chance to work further on his pledge to revitalise US alliances that frayed under his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
China topped the agenda, underscoring Japan’s central role in Washington’s efforts to face down Beijing. The two leaders addressed an array of geopolitical issues, including Taiwan, with Suga saying they reaffirmed “the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait”, a slap at Beijing’s increased military pressure on the Chinese-claimed, self-ruled island.
“Today prime minister Suga and I affirmed our ironclad support for the US-Japanese alliance and for our shared security,” Biden told a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden, calling the discussions “productive”.
“We committed to working together to take on the challenges from China and on issues like the East China Sea, the South China Sea, as well as North Korea, to ensure a future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
In another swipe at China, Biden said the US and Japan would invest together in areas such as 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genomics and semiconductor supply chains.
Suga said he and Biden agreed on the necessity of frank discussions with China in the context of Beijing’s activities in the Indo-Pacific region.
China said on Saturday that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang were China’s internal affairs and should not be interfered with.
The summit – Biden’s first in-person meeting with a foreign leader as president – came just days after China sent 25 aircraft, including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers, near Taiwan, which Beijing considers a wayward province.
Suga said the talks acknowledged the “importance of peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait as he continued Japan’s recent policy of trying to balance security concerns about China with economic ties.
A senior US official said earlier that the summit had been expected to produce a formal statement on Taiwan. After the talks, it was unclear whether this would happen. Any such joint statement would be the first on Taiwan – China’s most sensitive territorial issue – by US and Japanese leaders since 1969.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said China has expressed solemn concern about “collusion” between Japan and the US, and the countries should take China’s concerns seriously.
Speaking later to a Washington think tank, Suga said Japan would say what is needed to be said to China and speak up on human rights, but also stressed the need to establish a stable, constructive relationship with Beijing.
At the White House news conference, Suga said he told Biden that he was committed to moving forward with the summer Olympic Games in Japan and that Biden offered his support. Japan is grappling with rising coronavirus infections with fewer than 100 days until the planned start.
“I told the president about my determination to realise the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games this summer as a symbol of global unity,” Suga said.
As they sat down for talks, Biden, Suga and their two delegations all wore masks, in keeping with protocols to protect against the spread of Covid-19.
Biden appeared determined to get off on the right foot with Suga after four years in which Trump sometimes chastised allies in Asia and elsewhere over what he saw as insufficient defence spending or funding for US troop presence and questioned the value of bedrock military alliances.
With the Suga meeting and another planned summit with South Korea in May, Biden hopes to energize joint efforts with Australia, India and Japan in a grouping known as the Quad, as well as with South Korea, to counter China and longtime US foe North Korea.
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