WASHINGTON -- Calling democracy the foundation for global prosperity, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday in a bid to underscore the two countries' alliance as a counter to an autocratic and increasingly assertive China.
The visit was Biden's first face-to-face talks with a foreign leader since becoming president.
Suga and Biden, who wore masks for their meeting in the state dining room in a visit modified by White House precautions against the coronavirus, are seeking to challenge messaging from Chinese President Xi Jinping that America and democracies in general are on the decline, after the political turmoil and international withdrawal that marked Donald Trump's presidency.
Suga said democracy, human rights and other shared values were "the very foundation of prosperity of the region and the globe." It was one of many comments seen as a reference to China, which is increasingly flexing its economic and military strength internationally.
Suga, who is seeking to showcase Japan's security commitments with the United States, Japan's only treaty ally, told reporters before his talks with Biden that the trip was meant to "reaffirm the new and tight bond between us" as the U.S. and Japan deal with challenges in the region.
The Biden administration calls managing U.S. policies toward China and the Indo-Pacific the primary challenge for the United States. That helped guide Biden's decision, announced this week, to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and free the administration to focus more on East Asia.
For Biden and Suga, "our approach to China and our shared coordination and cooperation on that front will be part of the discussion," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. The two also were to discuss other regional security issues, including North Korea's nuclear program.
Suga, a farmer's son who rose to Japan's highest political office after an early stint as a worker in a cardboard factory, succeeded boss Shinzo Abe in September after long serving as his chief Cabinet secretary.
Suga expressed eagerness to meet with Biden early on despite global covid-19 lockdowns. The pandemic is changing the normal routine for a visit by a foreign leader, so Biden won't be hosting Suga for a meal, Psaki said.
Earlier Friday, Suga placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and visited with Vice President Kamala Harris. An honor guard greeted his arrival at the White House.
Suga began brief remarks to reporters before his session with Biden by expressing sympathy for the victims and families of the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. "Innocent citizens must not be exposed to any such violence," he said.Gallery: Biden, Japanese premier meet
The months-old Biden administration looks to Suga to keep going on alliance-strengthening moves by both countries.
The two governments have been working to strengthen technology supply chains independent of China during a shortage of semiconductors that's worrying businesses around the world. Japan is expected to announce an investment in 5G cellular networks, boosting alternatives to China's network, as part of that supply chain cooperation.
Both countries are expected in coming days to make deeper commitments to cutting climate-wrecking fossil fuel emissions, in line with Biden's climate summit with 40 world leaders next week.
The Biden administration may also have tougher requests of Japan, including pressing Suga for a rare public statement of support from a Japanese leader for Taiwan. China, which claims the self-governed island of Taiwan as its territory, tested U.S. and Taiwanese resolve weeks into the Biden administration by sending fighter jets and bombers near Taiwan.
Japan long has moved cautiously on steps that might worsen relations with China, though Suga has been more outspoken. His administration pushed its comfort zone last month in a statement stressing "peace and stability" on the Taiwan Strait.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned his Japanese counterpart in a call ahead of Suga's visit to see to it that China-Japan relations "do not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries," according to a Chinese government readout.
Japan's economy is intertwined with China's. That means even "with security concerns on the rise, Japan would have to take a two-pronged approach to balance competition and cooperation," said Akio Takahara, a professor and China expert at the University of Tokyo.
Information for this article was contributed by Josh Boak of The Associated Press.