Biden to Honor PM Kishida, Reflect on Japan's Growing Clout on International Stage

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden is set to host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday for talks on the delicate security situation in the Pacific and a glitzy state dinner, honoring a leader who has proven to be one of Biden's strongest allies in the face of a string of international crises.

Kishida's official visit completes the administration's feting of the leaders of the Quad, the informal partnership between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India that the White House has focused on elevating since Biden took office. As Biden administration officials put it, they saved the most pivotal relationship for last.

The visit will mark the realization of Japan's transformation from regional player to that of global influencer -- with senior Biden administration officials noting appreciatively there is little the U.S. does across the globe that Tokyo doesn't support. They pointed to Japan's eagerness to take a leading role in trying to bolster Ukraine against Russia's invasion or the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Biden and Kishida are also kindred spirits as politicians, both confronting difficult political headwinds on the home front while trying to navigate increasingly complicated problems on the global stage. Like Biden, Kishida has been dogged by low approval ratings for much of his tenure.

Biden's reelection effort has been shadowed by an American electorate anxious about inflation, unease among some Democrats over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, and concerns about whether at 81 he's too old to serve another four years.

Kishida, meanwhile, is dealing with a Japanese economy that slipped to the world's fourth-largest after it contracted in the last quarter of 2023 and fell behind Germany. Polls in Japan show that support for Kishida, who was elected in 2021, has plunged as he deals with a political funds corruption scandal within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

"For President Biden, this is, of course, a chance to highlight and cement progress in the relationship, the most important bilateral alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It's a chance to sustain urgency and momentum in this relationship," said Christopher Johnstone, a former national security official in the Biden administration who is now the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "For Kishida, it's a chance to showcase his ties to the U.S., to prop up support at home."

There are differences between the leaders. The visit comes after Biden announced last month that he opposes the planned sale of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel to Nippon Steel of Japan, exposing a marked rift in the partnership at the very moment the two leaders aim to reinforce it. Biden argued in announcing his opposition that the U.S. needs to "maintain strong American steel companies powered by American steelworkers."

Biden will welcome Kishida on Wednesday morning with a pomp-filled arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn. The leaders will hold Oval Office talks and a joint press conference before the formal dinner, which will include a post-meal performance by singer-songwriter Paul Simon, a favorite of both Kishida and first lady Jill Biden.

The Bidens hosted Kishida and his wife for dinner Tuesday evening, taking the couple for a dinner at BlackSalt, a seafood restaurant in a tony neighborhood in the nation's capital.

The couples also exchanged gifts. The Bidens presented Kishida with a three-legged table handmade by a Japanese American-owned company in Pennsylvania. The president also gave Kishida a custom-framed lithograph and a two-volume LP set autographed by Billy Joel. Jill Biden gave Yuko Kishida a soccer ball signed by the U.S. women's national team and the Japanese women's national team.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the leaders will announce plans to upgrade U.S.-Japan military relations, with both sides looking to tighten cooperation amid concerns about North Korea's nuclear program and China's increasing military assertiveness in the Pacific.

Kishida and Biden are also expected to confirm Japan's participation in NASA's Artemis moon program as well as its contribution of a moon rover developed by Toyota Motor Corp. and the inclusion of a Japanese astronaut in the mission. The rover, which comes at a roughly $2 billion cost, would be the most expensive contribution to the mission by a non-U.S. partner to date.

The leaders are also expected to announce cyber initiatives and new educational partnerships, and Kishida is expected to take part in planting a cherry blossom tree on the National Mall, an administration official said.

Biden has heaped praise on Japan for its significant increase in defense spending and has tightened cooperation on economic and security matters throughout Kishida's tenure.

Japan was quick to step up in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, 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.

Tokyo has been one of the largest donors to Kyiv since Russia's invasion, and Japan has surged its defense spending amid concern about China's military assertiveness.

As part of its increased defense, Japan agreed to acquire 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. Japan, Britain and Italy also began a collaboration on a next-generation jet fighter project.

The stepping up of Japan on the global stage is viewed within the administration as a "fundamental validation of President Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy," according to a senior administration official who previewed the visit for reporters.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House, added that the visit will help the White House demonstrate that Japan, long seen as an important regional alliance, has morphed into "if not our most important global alliance, then among the most important."