WASHINGTON — President Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan pledged on Friday to work jointly on the rapid development of 5G communications technologies to prevent one of China’s leading companies from dominating the global market, a symbolic first move at shoring up an alliance that withered during the Trump administration.
The agreement came as one of the prenegotiated outcomes of the first in-person visit of a foreign leader to Mr. Biden’s White House, after three months in which he talked to his overseas counterparts only by phone or video conference. For Mr. Suga, just appearing with Mr. Biden in the Rose Garden — where the president initially and mistakenly called him “Yosi” instead of “Yoshi” — was evidence that he had managed to preserve Japan’s most important international relationship despite one of the most difficult presidential transitions in history.
“Our commitment to meet in person is indicative of the importance, the value we both place on this relationship,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re going to work together to prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century.”
But the subtext of the meeting was responding to China’s influence and its aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific and beyond — which Mr. Biden regards as one of the key challenges of his time in office. And it was a careful dance, with Japanese officials wary of being drawn into the tensions with Beijing over Taiwan, the South China Sea and the rapid split between the West’s open internet and a Chinese government-dominated closed one.
So at a moment that Mr. Biden has been drawing lines in the sand — promising to compete with the Chinese government where he can and confront it where he must — Mr. Suga was, unsurprisingly, trying to water down any sense of rivalry.
Mr. Biden said that the two countries would “work together across a range of fields,” including “promoting secure and reliable 5G networks,” a technology that promises to revolutionize the speed and utility of high-speed cellular connections in factories and hard-to-reach rural areas. It is also a technology in which the United States has been virtually absent, while one of Beijing’s leading companies, Huawei, with support from the Chinese government, has wired vast parts of Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
Mr. Biden’s advisers have warned that if the United States does not engage allies in a race to catch up, the results could be disastrous for national security: More and more of the world’s internet traffic and conversations will flow through circuits controlled by Beijing. Aides said that Japan and the United States would spend $2 billion on a joint project to develop alternate approaches — a remarkable shift from the 1980s, when they regarded each other as potent technological rivals.
The New Washington
April 16, 2021, 7:40 p.m. ET
“Japan and the United States are both deeply invested in innovation and looking to the future,” Mr. Biden said. “That includes making sure we invest in and protect the technologies that will maintain and sharpen our competitive edge, and that those technologies are governed by shared democratic norms that we both share — norms set by democracies, not autocracies.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Suga stuck carefully to his script when he talked about “China’s influence,” saying “we agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas and the intimidation of others in the region.” Later, Mr. Suga made a single, direct reference to Taiwan, at a time when the democratic island, still considered a rogue province by Beijing, has been buzzed repeatedly by Chinese warplanes.
Issuing no warnings to China, he simply said the two leaders agreed to “the importance of peace and stability” of the Taiwan Strait. It was language that seemed deliberately drawn from 52 years ago, when President Richard M. Nixon and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato issued a statement in which the Japanese leader said that “the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also important for peace and security of Japan.”
As the two leaders fielded questions from reporters, Mr. Biden was asked about gun control after another mass shooting that left eight dead at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. Earlier in the day, Mr. Suga — whose country bans keeping almost all guns and reports some of the lowest rates of gun crime in the world — expressed his condolences. In the Rose Garden, he stood silently as the president called for a ban on assault weapons.
Mr. Suga then fielded a domestic question of his own, on the matter of whether Japan would cancel the Olympic Games this year, scheduled to be held in Tokyo in July, when many public health experts have argued there is no safe way to go forward given the coronavirus.
“I told the president about my determination to realize the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer as a symbol of the global unity,” Mr. Suga said. “President Biden once again expressed his support for this determination.”
The Biden administration has also been pressing the Japanese government to stand with the United States in announcing new greenhouse gas emissions pledges, to reach a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. According to two administration officials, the White House has prodded Japan to cut emissions in half from 2013 levels by the end of the decade.
Officials had hoped that Japan on Friday would announce an end to funding the development of coal plants overseas, but Mr. Suga made no such public commitment.