HIROSHIMA, Japan — President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met Thursday aiming to showcase the strength of their alliance ahead of a Group of Seven summit where leading democracies will tackle the challenges of Russia’s war in Ukraine, North Korea’s ballistic nuclear threats and an increasingly forceful China.
Biden recalled that Kishida said during a January Washington visit that the world faced one of the “most complex” security environments in recent history.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Biden told the Japanese prime minister as they sat with their aides at a conference table. “When our countries stand together, we stand stronger and I believe the whole world is safer when we do.”
Kishida noted that the global tensions had brought the U.S. and Japan closer together, that “the cooperation has evolved in leaps and bounds.”
The Kishida family’s home city of Hiroshima will host the gathering of major industrialized nations known at the G-7. The setting of Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped the first nuclear bomb in 1945 during World War II, carries newfound resonance. Members of the G-7, which also includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the European Union, are grappling with the territorial ambitions of Russia and China, two nuclear powers.
Biden is also appearing on the world stage while trying to manage a divide back in the U.S. on how to raise the government’s debt limit. He opted to cut short what was supposed to be an eight-day trip to Asia, so he can return to Washington to try to avoid a potentially catastrophic default in June that could ripple across the global economy. It’s a drama that reveals how internal U.S. politics can spill over into global forums.
While aboard Air Force One, Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, told reporters that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looms large as a G-7 topic. He added leaders would discuss the state of play on the battlefield and sealing loopholes to strengthen sanctions that have been levied against Moscow.
Last year, Biden came to Tokyo to discuss Indo-Pacific strategy and launch a new trade framework for the region, with the U.S. president and Kishida engaging in an 85-minute tea ceremony and seafood dinner. The president’s first stop in Japan on Thursday was to greet U.S. troops at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, before he headed to Hiroshima for talks with the Japanese prime minister.
Kishida was quick to call out the risks of Russian aggression in 2022, saying then, “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.”
China has declared a limitless friendship with Russia, increasing trade in ways that blunted the ability of financial sanctions to constrain the war. But the U.S. and its allies say China has yet to ship military equipment to Russia, a sign that the friendship might have some boundaries.
Biden and Kishida also discussed economic matters. They addressed efforts to bolster supply chains for critical minerals, new partnerships between U.S. and Japanese companies and universities and efforts to promote renewable energy, according to a White House readout of the meeting.
Kishida had planned to discuss further strengthening of deterrence and response capability with Biden in the face of China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as confirming the importance of the Taiwan Strait for global peace and stability. China has said that self-governing Taiwan should come under its rule.
The U.S. and Japanese leaders also talked about ways to reinforce their three-way partnership with South Korea, which signed an agreement in April with the U.S. to strengthen their tools for deterring a nuclear attack by North Korea.
Kishida and Biden will hold a trilateral summit with South Korea’s Yoon Suk Yeol on the sidelines of the G-7 summit. But Kishida is in a complicated position by discussing efforts to respond to nuclear threats by North Korea with Japan’s history of also calling for a world free from nuclear arms, said Kan Kimura, a Kobe University professor and an expert on South Korea.
In the wake of World War II, Japan embraced pacifism. The atomic bomb scorched Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people and destroying most of the river delta city’s buildings. But current conditions are testing Japan’s pacifism and anti-nuclear weapon tradition.
“Of course, Kishida is walking a fine line,” said Christopher Johnstone, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “He recognizes the need for the nuclear umbrella, Japan’s dependence on U.S. extended deterrence — that that’s more vital than ever, frankly, in the current security environment.”
There are outstanding issues between the U.S. and Japan. During his January meeting with Kishida, Biden brought up the case of Lt. Ridge Alkonis, a U.S. Navy officer deployed to Japan who last year was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to the negligent driving deaths of two Japanese citizens in May 2021, according to a senior administration official. Alkonis also agreed to pay the victims $1.65 million in restitution. His family is seeking his release, saying he was detained until he confessed.
The early return to Washington to deal with the debt limit means Biden will skip planned stops in Papua New Guinea and Australia, where he was to take part in a meeting of the so-called Quad partnership with leaders of Australia, India and Japan. The Papua New Guinea visit would have been the first to the Pacific Island country by a sitting U.S. president.
The White House said that Biden phoned the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, while traveling on Air Force One to “personally” convey the need to return to Washington. Biden invited Marape and other Pacific leaders to Washington later this year.