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U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday they will establish stronger military ties in the face of China’s expansive claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea. 

But Japan’s entry into the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States is still pending, they said.

After meeting with Biden at the White House, Kishida said the two leaders “confirmed that unilateral attempts to change the status quo” through “force or coercion” in the Indo-Pacific or elsewhere in the world were unacceptable and would be met with “resolute” action.

“From such a perspective, we agreed that our two countries will continue to respond to challenges concerning China through close coordination,” Kishida said. “At the same time, we confirmed the importance of continuing our dialogue with China.”

The Japanese prime minister said that Tokyo also stood with the United States against “Russia's aggression against Ukraine,” based “on a recognition that Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” 

Kishida called for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” and encouraged Beijing, which claims the democratic island of Taiwan as part of its territory, to pursue “peaceful resolution” with Taipei.

But with Beijing taking an increasingly assertive stance on its vast territorial claims – including firing water cannons at Philippine vessels – the leaders pledged greater deterrence.

Wearing aviator sunglasses throughout the press conference, Biden said he and Kishida agreed to improve security cooperation, including “modernizing command and control structures” to increase the “interoperability and planning of our militaries.”

He called the planned upgrade of security ties with Tokyo the “most significant” change in relations since the U.S.-Japan alliance was inked in 1951. It will include a new shared air-missile defense architecture that would also be available to Australia, the president said.

Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom would soon begin holding trilateral military exercises, Biden added. But he maintained that the moves were “not aimed at any one nation.”

“In our alliance we have with Japan, it’s purely defensive in nature,” he said. “The things we discussed today improve our cooperation, and are purely about defense and readiness.”

AUKUS pact

In the lead-up to Wednesday’s summit, there were suggestions that Japan would be unveiled as a new partner in the AUKUS security pact.

The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, wrote in an op-ed last week that Tokyo was set to become the first outside partner of “Pillar 2” of AUKUS, which aims to establish a single defense-industrial base across the three countries at the heart of the security pact.

However, there were no announcements after the summit, with Biden saying only that “our AUKUS defense partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom is exploring how Japan can join our work in the second pillar,” which he called a “benchmark” in cooperation.

Kishida noted Japan already enjoyed close bilateral relations with the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia – including taking part in recent joint military exercises – and so would continue to work closely with each, even if not as a formal partner of AUKUS.

“We want to contribute to peace and stability in the region, and therefore we have consistently supported AUKUS,” he said. “We have established various relationships, but for Japan to have direct cooperation with AUKUS, nothing has been decided.”

To join “Pillar 2” of AUKUS, Japan would have to put in place export-control and secrecy measures to ensure that American defense technology secrets do not fall into the wrong hands, with U.S. officials still reviewing recent changes by Canberra and London.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of Biden and Kishida summit, said while Japan can “potentially bring a great deal to AUKUS Pillar 2,” it was still early days, with Biden still not having signed-off on Australian and British participation.

“We expect the consultations will take a period of months, and it will take a portion of the 2024 calendar year before the AUKUS Pillar 2 vision is fully fleshed-out, and with that [the ability] to assign specific partners to specific Pillar 2 projects,” the U.S. official said.

“Japan brings a great deal to the table – that's why we are announcing that the AUKUS partners want to begin consultations with Tokyo as soon as possible,” the official said. “But we have a way to go.”

Differences of opinion

Kishida and Biden also touched on some differences of opinion, such as the U.S. president’s recent decision to oppose the purchase of U.S. Steel by Japan’s Nippon Steel for US$14.9 billion.

Biden said last month that U.S. Steel must remain domestically-owned, creating some backlash in Japan given the country’s long alliance with the United States. 

The United States Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, PA., Feb. 26, 2024. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

On his way to Washington, Kishida called the dispute a private matter between Nippon Steel and American regulators, and he reiterated that during the press conference on Wednesday.

“We understand that discussions are underway between the parties,” he said. “We hope these discussions will unfold in directions that would be positive for both sides. Japan believes that appropriate procedures based on law are  being implemented by the U.S. government.”

Kishida and Biden’s summit comes a day before the pair meet with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in what has been billed as the first trilateral meeting between leaders of the three countries.

Analysts say the meeting at the White House is set to further bolster U.S. security ties in the South China Sea with its two major allies amid the ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines over a remote Philippine outpost at the sea’s Second Thomas Shoal.

Beijing has said the cooperation among the U.S. allies is “stoking bloc confrontation” and “escalating an arms race in the Asia-Pacific.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Alex Willemyns for RFA.