WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House on Friday in his first in-person meeting with a world leader since he took office.
Biden's decision to host Suga for his first face-to-face meeting highlights his administration's focus on strengthening ties with allies in Asia as the U.S. works to counter an increasingly assertive China.
"The United States and Japan have a big agenda ahead of us," Biden said, ahead of the meeting with Suga and administration officials.
"Our cooperation is vital in my view, and I think in both of our views, to meeting the challenges facing our nation and ensuring that future of the region remain free and open and prosperous."
Suga thanked Biden for hosting him, and offered his condolences for the victims of the shooting in Indianapolis late Thursday. "Innocent citizens must not be exposed to any such violence," Suga said.
Suga met with former Ambassador Caroline Kennedy earlier Friday morning and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. He also meet with Vice President Kamala Harris ahead of a private meeting with Biden at the White House before being joined by senior administration officials and Cabinet members.
Biden and Suga spoke to reporters in the Rose Garden after their meetings.
A senior administration official had predicted that a number of issues related to China would come up Friday, including China's actions in the Taiwan Strait and human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Despite pressure to confront China more directly, Japan is in a precarious position because of its economic ties and proximity to China.
The Japanese prime minister, speaking through a translator, confirmed the discussion of Chinese influence in the region.
“We agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China seas and intimidation of others in the region," he said. "At the same time, we agreed on the necessity for each of us to engage in frank dialogue with China and in so doing to pursue stability of international relations."
The White House announced Thursday that Biden's second in-person meeting would be with South Korean President Moon Jae-in late next month in Washington, further signaling his commitment to shore up alliances in the region. Biden's secretaries of state and defense visited Japan and South Korea in their first trips abroad last month.
North Korea is also likely to be high on Friday's agenda. It test-fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last month shortly after launching two smaller missile tests. Biden condemned the second ballistic missile launches, which were in violation of a U.N. resolution.
The administration official said Biden would also make a priority of discussing Japan's strained relationship with South Korea. The Japanese government this week decided to start releasing treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean in two years, which South Korea criticized and promised to fight.
"It is concerning to us, even to the point of being painful for us, to see relations between Japan and South Korea fall to the current level. The political tensions are such that we believe it actually impedes all of our abilities to be effective in North East Asia," the official said.
This year's Summer Olympics in Tokyo are also likely to come up as doubt rises over whether Japan can safely hold the games in a fourth wave of coronavirus infections. But Biden is unlikely to pressure Suga to cancel the games, which were postponed last year. The senior administration official said, "At a fundamental level, the president is very sympathetic, loves sports."
The two leaders are also expected to discuss trade, climate change, the pandemic, supply chains and 5G technology, among other topics.