U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday he will seek to work closely with new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, calling the partnership between the two democracies a "critical asset" in dealing with the challenges ahead.
With Washington and Tokyo stepping up efforts over the past months to counter China's assertiveness in the region, the Biden administration may also welcome the continuity in Japan's diplomacy as signaled by Kishida retaining his predecessor's foreign and defense ministers in his Cabinet, which was formed Monday.
"The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and the world, and I look forward to working closely with Prime Minister Kishida to strengthen our cooperation in the months and years ahead," Biden said in a statement, congratulating Kishida on his election by the Diet.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a separate statement highlighted his "friendship" with the new Japanese leader, recalling working together when Kishida was Japan's foreign minister and Blinken was deputy secretary of state.
The top U.S. diplomat also said the bilateral relationship "demonstrates that when free and democratic nations work together we can address global threats -- such as COVID-19 and the climate crisis -- while defending and reinforcing the free and open rules-based international order."
Jeffrey Hornung, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said he does not expect any drastic changes in Japan's foreign or defense policies, including the emphasis on the Japan-U.S. alliance, the promotion of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and pursuing a hard line on China.
Although Kishida's background, as he hails from a historically dovish faction of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, may lead to a "more nuanced approach" on Beijing, Hornung said a growing consensus in Japan that "China is a challenge" will "make it difficult for any Japanese leader right now to be very dovish on China."
"There are limits to dialogue when China is committing 'genocide' in Xinjiang and squashing democracy in Hong Kong," the expert on Japanese security and foreign policies at the U.S. research organization said, referring to the allegations of China's human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the far-western region.
When campaigning for last week's LDP presidential election, a race that effectively decided Japan's new prime minister, Kishida was seen taking on a hawkish note as he asserted a need to stand firm against authoritarian regimes like China.
Looking ahead, Hornung said the United States and Japan will have major issues to deal with in the security realm, including deepening their discussions over possible contingencies in Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province awaiting reunification by force if necessary.
He said one legacy of the one-year tenure of Kishida's predecessor Yoshihide Suga was "the visibility" the Taiwan issue has been given through statements from the two countries.
Taiwan has become "much more spoken" about publicly under the Suga administration than ever before, he said.
At their bilateral meeting in Washington in April, Suga confirmed with Biden "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." It was the first time in 52 years that Japanese and U.S. leaders mentioned Taiwan in a joint statement.
But Hornung said the United States will now be expecting Japan to do more than "vocalization about the importance of Taiwan" and come up with actual plans or commitments toward dealing with the situation.
Both Biden and Blinken, meanwhile, expressed appreciation for the advancement of the bilateral alliance under Suga, who was the first foreign leader Biden invited to the White House for in-person talks since he took office in January.
Suga also took part in the first-ever summit meeting of the Quad group, involving the United States, Japan, Australia and India, which was held in a virtual format in March.
The Biden administration elevated the engagement of the four major Indo-Pacific democracies to the leaders' level as it seeks to rally U.S. allies and like-minded countries to address the challenges posed by China.