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International relations

Suga pursues Biden's commitment on 'free and open Indo-Pacific'

Security, trade and environment to dominate talks with new US administration

U.S. Navy vessels join Japanese and Canadian ships in the Philippine Sea for the Keen Sword 21 drill in October 2020. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will urge President Joe Biden to keep the U.S. committed to a "free and open Indo-Pacific region," seeking to curb China's growing influence in the region and advance an international order based on the rule of law.

Suga will speak with Biden by phone as early as this month to start preparations for their first summit. The Japanese leader looks to visit Washington in February, though the specifics will depend on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic in the two countries at the time.

Suga offered his congratulations to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in a tweet soon after they were sworn into office Wednesday in Washington, following up with a post saying that he looks forward to working together toward a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific."

"A peaceful transition of power is extremely important," Suga told parliamentary lower house lawmakers here earlier on Wednesday. "I hope that Americans will step forward together under the new president."

"We hope to work closely with the U.S. on shared challenges for the international community, like ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific, responding to the coronavirus and fighting climate change," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.

Biden considers the coronavirus response and vaccine distribution as the top priorities for his first 100 days in office, and some think he initially will focus on domestic issues.

Japan will consider a teleconference between Suga and Biden if an in-person summit cannot be organized quickly. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi could visit the U.S. to lay the groundwork for the two leaders to meet.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, hopes to meet U.S. President Joe Biden for face-to-face talks in February. (Source photos by Reuters)

Suga and Biden are expected to reaffirm the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and American involvement in the Indo-Pacific during their first talks. Japan hopes the new administration will continue the Indo-Pacific policy started under former President Donald Trump.

Tokyo has concerns that Biden may distance himself from Trump's terminology for the initiative, intended to promote free trade and security partnerships in the region to counter China's maritime and economic presence there. During a phone conversation with Suga in November, Biden called for a "secure and prosperous" Indo-Pacific instead.

Both Suga and Biden aim for their countries to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Japan hopes to work with the U.S. on decarbonization technologies, such as electric cars and carbon capture. Suga also is expected to suggest to Biden that the countries set up a cabinet-level dialogue on the issue.

Trade likely will be another key topic. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade pact under his "America First" policy. Biden also is expected to prioritize domestic industries for now, and Suga will urge him to consider rejoining the TPP over a longer time horizon.

In terms of defense, Suga will urge Biden to continue working on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with Australia and India, in order to curb Beijing's provocations in the East and South China seas.

The countries also will need to quickly reach a new cost-sharing agreement for U.S. military bases in Japan. Their interim deal expires at the end of March. Japan opted not to sign a replacement last year with the Trump administration, which had pushed for greater contributions by Tokyo.

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