WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held wide-ranging talks at the White House on Friday as Japan looks to build security cooperation with allies in a time of provocative Chinese and North Korean military action.
The two administrations also sealed an agreement to bolster U.S.-Japanese cooperation on space with a signing ceremony by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa.
The Oval Office meeting and signing ceremony at NASA's Washington headquarters capped a weeklong tour for Kishida that took him to five European and North American capitals for talks on his effort to beef up Japan's security.
Biden welcomed Kishida to the White House on Friday morning for the prime minister's first visit to Washington since he took office in October 2021. Inside the Oval Office, the U.S. president praised Japan for its “historic” increase in defense spending and pledged close cooperation on economic and security matters.
“We meet at a remarkable moment,” Biden told Kishida, adding later, “The more difficult job is trying to figure out how and where we disagree.”
Kishida, speaking through an interpreter, said the two nations “share fundamental values such as democracy and the rule of law” and stressed that their joint role on the global stage “is becoming even greater.”
It all comes as Japan announced plans last month to raise defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product in five years, a dramatic increase in spending for a nation that forged a pacifist approach to its defense after World War II. Japan's defense spending has historically remained below 1% of GDP.
Kishida went to NASA's Washington headquarters after visiting the White House for the signing of the space agreement.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the two countries are “poised to unlock the secrets of the universe.” Blinken said “we're entering a new chapter of space exploration" as they plan expeditions to the moon and Mars.
Earlier this week, Blinken said the U.S. and Japan agree that China is their “greatest shared strategic challenge” and confirmed that an attack in space would trigger a mutual defense provision in the U.S.-Japan security treaty.
Before Friday's meeting of the two leaders, U.S. and Japanese officials announced an adjustment to the American troop presence on the island of Okinawa in part to enhance anti-ship capabilities that would be needed in the event of a Chinese incursion into Taiwan or other hostile acts in the region. Japan is also reinforcing defenses on its southwestern islands close to Taiwan, including Yonaguni and Ishigaki, where new bases are being constructed.
The leaders discussed Japan’s push to step up defense spending and coordination that comes as concerns grow that China could take military action to seize Taiwan and that North Korea's spike in missile testing could augur the isolated nation's achieving its nuclear ambitions.
Biden and Kishida also discussed intrusions by China’s military vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets are controlled by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
Kishida's sit-down with Biden is the final face-to-face in a week of talks with fellow Group of Seven leaders that focused largely on his efforts to increase Japan's defense spending and urge leaders to improve cooperation.
With Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, he cemented Japan’s first defense agreement with a European nation, one that allows for the two countries to hold joint military exercises.
Kishida also discussed with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron his hopes to improve security cooperation between Japan and their respective nations. Germany was the lone G-7 country not on Kishida's itinerary.
Japan last month announced plans to buy U.S.-made Tomahawks and other long-range cruise missiles that can hit targets in China or North Korea under a more offensive security strategy, while Japan, Britain and Italy unveiled plans to collaborate on a next-generation jet fighter project.
“Just a few years ago, there would have been some discomfort in Washington with a Japan that has this kind of military capability,” said Chris Johnstone, a former National Security Council official in the Biden administration who is now the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Those days are gone.”
Biden administration officials have praised Japan for stepping up in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Japan was quick to join the U.S. and other Western allies in mounting aggressive sanctions on Moscow, and Japanese automakers Mazda, Toyota and Nissan announced their withdrawal from Russia.
The White House has made the case that China is paying close attention to international efforts to coalesce behind Ukraine as it weighs action on Taiwan.
“We strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion, anywhere in the world,” the leaders said in a joint statement following their meeting.
The Biden administration officials have been pleasantly surprised by Japan's intensified effort to reconsider its security.
A senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss negotiations with the Japanese, noted that historically negotiations involving U.S. force posture in Okinawa have been “unbelievably fraught, incredibly challenging and difficult” and often took years to complete. But, the official said, negotiations before this week’s meetings were completed with striking speed.
Biden had been expected to raise the case of Lt. Ridge Alkonis, a U.S. Navy officer deployed to Japan who was jailed after pleading guilty last year to the negligent driving deaths of two Japanese citizens in May 2021.
Alkonis’ family says he suddenly fell unconscious behind the wheel during a family trip on Mt. Fuji. He veered into parked cars and pedestrians in a parking lot, striking an elderly woman and her son-in-law, both of whom later died.
The Navy officer was sentenced in October to three years in prison, a sentence that the family and U.S. lawmakers have called unduly harsh considering the circumstances. Alkonis also agreed to pay the victims $1.65 million in restitution.
The official added that the Biden administration was working “to find a compassionate resolution that’s consistent with the rule of law.” Neither Biden nor Kishida responded to shouted questions about Alkonis at the White House, and outside its gates, about two dozen demonstrators called for Alkonis' release.
Kishida met with Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday before his meeting with Biden.
___ Associated Press writers Tracy Brown, Seung Min Kim and Chris Megerian in Washington and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press