U.S. President Joe Biden is eager to strengthen ties with Japan under presumed next Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, a senior official in the U.S. administration said Wednesday, after the former foreign minister was elected as the new leader of Japan's ruling party.

"The United States places great importance on the U.S.-Japan alliance, which serves as the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and across the world," the official said. "President Biden looks forward to working with Japan's new prime minister to strengthen our cooperation in the years ahead."

The two countries have been deepening their ties as they seek to counter China's growing assertiveness in the region. Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said the Biden administration will likely reach out "quickly" to "develop a strong partnership" with the next Japanese prime minister amid intensifying U.S.-China competition.

"There is a measure of, if not desperation, about the U.S.-Japan alliance — because of the way China under (President) Xi Jinping has become so aggressive, so ambitious and so coercive. So there's an urgency to this alliance," he said.

The United States will also likely be closely watching whether Kishida, a 64-year-old veteran politician characterized by his critics as lacking charisma, can solidify his grip on power and avoid Japan returning to an era of so-called revolving-door leadership.

"Will there be another rapid turnover of Japanese prime ministers, and all the viscosity and uncertainty that creates in implementing policy?" asked Green.

Fumio Kishida, then foreign minister, dines with then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy in Tokyo in November 2016. | KYODO
Fumio Kishida, then foreign minister, dines with then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy in Tokyo in November 2016. | KYODO

Noting that Japan is "in every area of competition with China that the United States cares about," from technology and defense to democracy and diplomacy, Green said the focus of bilateral relations is now less about "alignment" but about "the execution of strategy."

Kishida is set to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is stepping down after just one year in office amid criticism of his government's COVID-19 response.

Suga's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who served for nearly eight years through September 2020, expanded Japan's security role overseas by loosening the constraints imposed by its postwar pacifist Constitution, a move that was welcomed by the United States.

But before Abe took office in December 2012 and eventually became Japan's longest-serving prime minister, the country saw six prime ministers in six years, including Abe's first stint from 2006 to 2007.

Green described Kishida as a "reliable" person in the eyes of LDP leaders but noted that his challenge is to be "attuned to the public mood," calling this his "strength but also his weakness." He added that Kishida's outspokenness on issues about democracy, Taiwan and Hong Kong would probably "align very well" with Biden, who has prioritized human rights and democracy promotion in his foreign policy.

"We are watching the democratic process of selecting a new prime minister with great interest, and we look forward to continuing our work with the government of Japan, a steadfast ally across our broad agenda of regional and global issues," a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.

Kishida is expected to be elected prime minister in an extraordinary Diet session starting Monday, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition ally hold a majority in both Diet chambers. He has pledged to create a new post for a special adviser to the prime minister tasked with dealing with human rights issues such as China's alleged abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the far-western Xinjiang region as well as its crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

He has also welcomed Taiwan's filing of a formal application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Japan is a party, in a move that has irritated Beijing. China has been stepping up pressure on the self-ruled democratic island, which it views as a renegade province awaiting reunification by force if necessary.

Meanwhile, the State Department spokesperson thanked Suga "for his work to strengthen and expand the enduring U.S.-Japan alliance."

Suga was the first foreign leader Biden invited to the White House for in-person talks after the latter took office in January. At his summit in Washington in April, Suga confirmed with Biden "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." It marked the first time in 52 years that Japanese and U.S. leaders had mentioned Taiwan in a joint statement.

In March, Suga also took part in the first-ever meeting of leaders of the Quad group — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — which is widely seen as a counterweight against China's growing influence in the region.

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