• Kyodo, AFP-JIJI


U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed the United States' commitment to defend Japan in his first phone call with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday, striking a note of reassurance after the Trump era.

During Donald Trump's administration, America's Asian allies often questioned whether Washington would uphold long-standing promises to defend them in the event of attack.

Trump had publicly mulled withdrawing troops not just from Japan but also South Korea, where more than 20,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed to deter any North Korean military action.

Biden and Suga both urged denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula in the call — their first since Biden took office last week.

"I would like to deepen my personal relationship with President Biden and work to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance," Suga told reporters after the roughly 30-minute conversation, adding that he hopes to visit the United States as soon as possible despite the challenges of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic.

After Biden thanked Suga for agreeing to hold the talks after midnight Tokyo time, the two sides agreed to refer to each other by their first names, Yoshi and Joe, to demonstrate the closeness of their countries' bilateral relationship.

The leaders' agreement that the Senkakus in the East China Sea are covered by Article 5 of the 1960 Japan-U.S. security treaty comes after the defense chiefs and foreign ministers of both countries confirmed the point in recent phone talks.

They discussed Washington's "unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan under Article 5 of our security treaty," the White House said, and Biden reaffirmed "his commitment to provide extended deterrence to Japan."

The U.S. backing "includes the Senkaku Islands" — an area claimed both by Japan and China, which calls the islands the Diaoyus, the statement said.

China last week passed legislation authorizing coast guard ships, which it frequently sends near the Senkakus as well as into the disputed South China Sea, to use weapons against foreign ships deemed to be involved in illegal activities.

Suga and Biden agreed to work with Australia and India, fellow members of the so-called Quad of democracies stepping up defense cooperation amid concerns over China's growing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific region, according to Japan's Foreign Ministry.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke Wednesday with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and stressed Biden's pledge to "engage with the world again," a State Department spokesman said.

America's clear mention of the Senkakus, an uninhabited island chain which has been a potential flash point for decades, is likely to cause anger in Beijing.

While Biden is making a clean break from many of Trump's policies, his team has pledged continuity on some diplomatic issues, including taking a hard line on China.

Trump during his time in power rattled Asian allies by picking trade fights with China, embracing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and openly floating the possibility of withdrawing troops from the region.

Suga and Biden also affirmed cooperation in tackling global issues including the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 2 million people worldwide and upended the economies of both countries, as well as climate change.

Suga welcomed Biden's decisions to return to the 2015 Paris Agreement on curbing carbon emissions and not to withdraw from the World Health Organization, and the U.S. leader invited Suga to participate in a summit on climate change slated for April 22, the Foreign Ministry said.

On North Korea, the two agreed on the necessity of complete denuclearization in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions, while Suga called for Washington's support in resolving the issue of the North's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to Japanese officials, the two leaders did not discuss the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which had originally been scheduled for the summer of 2020 but were postponed for one year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

While the central government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly vowed to hold the games, speculation is rife that they may not happen as scheduled as the world continues to battle the pandemic.

Suga spoke to Biden in November after the U.S. election and gave a stark warning that the security situation was "increasingly severe" in the Asia-Pacific region.

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