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International relations

Pandemic forces Suga to travel to US with reduced entourage

Neither cabinet members nor first lady will accompany prime minister

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will depart April 15 from Haneda Airport on Japan's equivalent of Air Force One. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will leave Thursday for his summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington with neither cabinet members nor his wife in his entourage as both sides try to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infections.

The prime minister will depart from Haneda Airport on Japan's equivalent of Air Force One, with a delegation of about 80 people, 20% to 30% smaller than usual for a trip to the U.S. All have been vaccinated against the virus at Washington's request, including Suga, who received two doses ahead of the trip.

The prime minister would typically bring other high-level officials on a visit of this magnitude, such as Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. It is also rare for a Japanese leader to travel to the U.S. without the first lady, as the spouses of the two leaders customarily hold events of their own.

With the number of new cases remaining sizeable in the U.S., and Tokyo under high alert, the two sides have opted for a relatively bare-bones visit without bells and whistles like previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 2019 golf outing with then-President Donald Trump. The summit was delayed for a week to allow more time to prepare.

Officials had considered events such as a cherry-blossom viewing or a tree planting, but ultimately decided against them. Discussions are still ongoing as to whether to have the leaders dine together before or after the summit as usual. The U.S. side worries that chatting while eating poses a high risk of coronavirus transmission.

Suga's first trip to the U.S. as prime minister will be simplified to minimize coronavirus-related risks. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

Suga and Biden will announce the results of the meeting at a news conference, as well as issue a joint statement showcasing a unified stance on China. The document is expected to state that Tokyo and Washington will work together to address the threat posed by Beijing's growing assertiveness in the East and South China seas.

On climate change, a priority for Biden, the two leaders are poised to sign a separate partnership agreement that will call for providing support to developing economies to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

The trip will be Suga's first to the U.S. as prime minister, as well as Biden's first face-to-face visit with another world leader as president.

"This will be an extremely meaningful trip for forging a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance," Suga said Tuesday.

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