Biden to host Japan’s Kishida, Philippines’ Marcos as security fears mount

April 9, 2024 - 11:22 AM
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A man passes Japanese and U.S. flags hanging side by side on the Eisenhower Executive Office Building ahead next week?s state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to the White House in Washington, U.S., April 5, 2024. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo)

 U.S. President Joe Biden hosts the leaders of Japan and the Philippines this week to boost economic and defense ties as the allies seek to offset China’s growing might and manage risks ranging from North Korea to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Biden’s bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday will bring an upgrade in defense ties with Japan, Washington’s cornerstone ally in the Indo-Pacific region and an increasingly important global partner.

Kishida, beleaguered at home, will be greeted in the United States with great fanfare, with Japanese flags already festooning Washington lampposts and a glittering White House dinner with some 200 guests.

On Thursday, he will become only the second Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress after his assassinated predecessor, Shinzo Abe, gave a speech in 2015.

Political analysts say the visit is a chance for Kishida to boost dire domestic popularity ratings ahead of a September leadership contest in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The U.S. will hail Japan as a vital regional and global ally and Kishida will be able to bask in praise for defense reforms that have taken Japan further from its post-war pacifism.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday the three countries had “increasingly convergent strategic objectives, interests and frankly concerns in areas like the South China Sea.”

“We’re going to look to find ways to continue to deepen the collaboration with our closest partners again to ensure a free open, prosperous secure Indo-Pacific,” Kirby said.

Overshadowing the visit is a controversy over the planned $15 billion acquisition of American steel maker U.S. Steel X.N by Japan’s Nippon Steel 5401.T, a deal some say is “on life support” after criticism by Biden and Donald Trump, his rival in November’s U.S. election.

Also looming are Japanese concerns that in any second Trump term he might seek a deal with China that could destabilize the region.

Supporting the Philippines

On Thursday, Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, whom he welcomed in Washington just last year, before the two join Kishida for a trilateral summit expected to focus on countering Chinese pressure on the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea.

“Close cooperation between Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines is crucial for a free and open order based on the rule of law and for economic prosperity in the region,” Kishida said on Friday.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said on Monday China was constantly using “coercion” and pressure on countries including Japan and the Philippines, and his counterpart, Japan’s ambassador to the U.S., Shigeo Yamada, said the overall approach to Beijing would be among the issues discussed.

Yamada told the same think tank event Kishida would emphasize to the U.S. Congress that Japan is ready to work collaboratively on global issues. He said Japan would continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself and keep its economy going – another issue the leaders could discuss.

U.S.-Japan military coordination 

With concerns that Russia’s Ukraine invasion might embolden Beijing to move against Taiwan, a strategic self-ruled island that produces the world’s most advanced semiconductors, the leaders are expected to discuss plans to upgrade the U.S. military command structure in Japan to make it better able to work with Japanese forces in a crisis.

Biden and Kishida are also expected to announce steps to allow more joint development of military and defense equipment, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said last week.

Under Kishida, Japan has pledged to double defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product, which could make it the world’s third-biggest military spender. Its plans include acquiring hundreds of cruise missiles that can strike targets 1,000 km (620 miles) away.

Japan has also become important to the U.S. as a potential production base for munitions, including Patriot PAC3 anti-missile systems that will be re-exported to Ukraine, and for its shipyards.

The Biden-Kishida summit is expected to address Japan’s future involvement in the three-way AUKUS defense pact between Australia, Britain and the United States, but officials and experts say obstacles remain given a need for Japan to introduce better cyber defenses and stricter rules for guarding secrets.

Britain, the United States and Australia said in a joint statement on Monday they are considering working with Japan on advanced capability projects in AUKUS and Britain said talks between the partners and other nations, including Japan, would start this year.

Japan last year delivered air defense radars to the Philippines and is negotiating a reciprocal-access agreement that would make it easier for Japanese troops to train there.

U.S. officials emphasize interactions with the Philippines will cover more than defense, with “consequential” outcomes in energy and economic security.

“It’s a really important moment for us to hear from the Philippines about what kinds of support may be most useful,” a senior U.S. administration official told Reuters.

Amid the Nippon Steel controversy, U.S. officials aim to highlight other Japanese investment in the U.S. Deals in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, aviation and construction will contribute “to good-paying, strong American jobs,” the U.S. official said.

Space is another focus, with Japan hoping to land its first astronaut on the moon with the U.S. Artemis project that envisages returning humans there by 2026, as competition with Russia and China intensifies.

— Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Timothy Kelly and Sakura Murakami in Tokyo and Karen Lema in ManilaEditing by Don Durfee, Lincoln Feast and Matthew Lewis