DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:
It was the first welcome of a foreign leader to the Biden White House. The Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, sat down with President Biden to discuss regional security and threats to that security from one of Japan's neighbors.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are 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.
ELLIOTT: We're joined now by NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Seoul. Anthony, it looks like China loomed large in this meeting.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Very large. And that just underlines how enlisting U.S. allies to meet China's challenge to U.S. dominance in the region is a top foreign policy priority for Biden. Now, the strongest thing Biden and Suga said together about China was actually in a written joint statement where they expressed concern about, quote, "Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order." That might sound a bit dry, but it's actually the most critical thing the U.S. and Japan's leaders have said together about China in decades.
Let's hear Prime Minister Suga detail some of Japan's concerns about China, speaking through an interpreter.
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PRIME MINISTER YOSHIHIDE SUGA: (Through interpreter) 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.
KUHN: But Prime Minister Suga also said that it's necessary to engage in frank dialogue with China. And that tells us that Japan is clearly not willing to side with the U.S. against China so completely that it wrecks ties between Tokyo and Beijing. They don't want to become China's enemy. They don't want to decouple their economies.
ELLIOTT: What else was on the agenda between the two leaders?
KUHN: They talked about areas of competition with China, such as cooperating on emerging technologies, which China wants to master, such as artificial intelligence. But they also talked about things where they could actually potentially cooperate with China, such as climate change and clean energy, getting vaccines to the region and also the Tokyo Olympics this summer, which is touch-and-go right now due to the pandemic.
ELLIOTT: You know, there was talk ahead of this meeting that there would be a stronger statement that Japan would help the U.S. in case China tries to reunite Taiwan by force. Did they do so?
KUHN: No, they didn't really move the needle. And if they had done so much as to imply that if China attacks Taiwan, the U.S. and Japan would defend it together, that would've been hugely provocative towards Beijing, perhaps inviting some retaliation. But Biden and Suga just stressed the, quote, "importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." That's an old formulation. It suggests that the U.S. and Japan are going to stick to a policy of strategic ambiguity, which means basically to keep China guessing about what they will do on Taiwan.
ELLIOTT: Anthony, what does this first meeting tell us in general?
KUHN: It tells us that the Biden administration has made a start in enlisting Japan's help with China and reassuring another ally which has been unnerved by how President Trump treated allies. It also shows that there's still a very big gap in the two countries' perceptions of threats and interests in Asia.
Now, the U.S.'s next step is going to be to try to get South Korea on board. And South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, will visit Washington next month. And it's going to be a long shot to get them fully on board with U.S. China policy. But the failure to do that would leave a gaping hole in the U.S.'s strategy in Asia.
ELLIOTT: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul, South Korea, thanks so much.
KUHN: Thank you.
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