U.S. President Joe Biden's decision to host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for an official meeting in spring, whether by coincidence or design, was allusive and laden with thematics calculated to sustain progress made between the countries even if both men fail to hold onto power later this year.

The summit and a state dinner on Wednesday were held weeks after Washington's iconic cherry trees, gifted by Tokyo over a century ago as a symbol of friendship, reached peak bloom. Cherry blossoms hold diverse meanings in Japanese culture, from new beginnings and hope to the frailty of existence and death, and create an ongoing bond between the U.S. capital and Tokyo.

Biden and Kishida announced a long list of agreements aimed at bolstering the bilateral alliance's deterrence, expanding cooperation on new domains such as outer space and advancing networking with like-minded partners.

"Over the last three years, the partnership between Japan and the United States has been transformed into a truly global partnership," Biden said at a post-meeting press conference with Kishida.

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attend a joint press conference at the White House in Washington on April 10, 2024. (Kyodo)

James Schoff, an expert on U.S.-Japan relations, characterized the 11th in-person meeting between them as a "showcase summit" that provided a chance to highlight "the pretty remarkable breadth and variety of activities that the alliance is now engaged in."

The new agreements between Biden and Kishida materialized, first and foremost, against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China, which the two allies consider a serious security threat.

Of the more than 70 deliverables announced, Schoff, a former Pentagon senior adviser on East Asia and now senior director at Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, said the most noteworthy is an agreement to start working toward more integrated command and control structures between U.S. and Japanese forces.

Schoff said that "it could potentially be one of the more consequential kinds of lasting improvements to the alliance" maybe more so than when their defense guidelines were updated in 2015 to enable the two forces to act more seamlessly by broadening previous geographical and functional restraints on their cooperation.

"Had this summit happened four months ago, or five months ago, it would have been too early. Four months from now. It's too late," he said, given the context of the U.S. electoral cycle.

Biden also called the initiative, to be taken in conjunction with Japan's planned establishment of a joint headquarters to command its ground, maritime and air forces by March 2025, "the most significant upgrade in our alliance" since it was established more than six decades ago.

The defense and foreign ministers of the two countries will start discussing how to develop a new relationship between the U.S. military and Japan's Self-Defense Forces possibly next month.

Still, the ultimate question that needs to be answered is whether the numerous initiatives agreed upon between Biden and Kishida will be durable as both leaders, each of whom currently faces low approval ratings, are fighting for their jobs.

Biden has to surmount the significant challenge posed by his predecessor Donald Trump in the November presidential election, while Kishida has to overcome discontent at home to win reelection as the ruling party's leader in September.

For U.S. and Japanese officials, the overriding objective of Kishida's trip was to demonstrate, not only to their domestic audience but also to the rest of the world, that Washington and Tokyo are now global partners working to ensure the rules-based international order is maintained.

The officials and political experts alike have said the underlying objective of his visit was to sow the seeds of a sustainable alliance, regardless of which candidate wins the U.S. presidential election and who holds the leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

A senior U.S. official said a multilateral lattice-like strategic architecture that the United States and Japan have been strengthening with their like-minded partners, including Australia, the Philippines and South Korea, will "stand the test of time" but to achieve progress, continued investment is inevitably required.

Nicholas Szechenyi, a senior fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Kishida's address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday could be more impactful in sustaining momentum for the deepening cooperation than the initiatives laid out in their statement.

Kishida was given a great chance to explain to U.S. lawmakers and the American public what Japan is doing on a range of policy fronts and how Japan remains dedicated to its relationship with the United States.

"That's important for a city like Washington right now, which, let's be honest, is inward-looking, polarized and increasingly focused on domestic matters in the lead-up to the presidential election," said Szechenyi, who is also deputy director for Asia at the Washington think tank.

He said Japan is able to inspire confidence as it has had a clear strategic direction for about a decade and its profile in global affairs has increased.

"Having this opportunity to set that aside and think a little more broadly about what U.S. interests are in the world and how Japan fits into that is very significant," he said.

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