Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a speech during a New Year celebration party of business leaders in Tokyo on January 5, 2022.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a speech during a New Year celebration party of business leaders in Tokyo on January 5, 2022. KOJI SASAHARA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Japan PM Kishida’s Top Concerns for Biden: Covid, Climate, & China

New and old issues—including over U.S. troops—are on the agenda this week in their first virtual meeting as world leaders.

Amid growing tensions with China over Taiwan and the worst Covid spike Japan has seen, President Joe Biden is expected to meet virtually with the new Japanese prime minister on Friday. 

The virtual meeting, which will be the first between the two leaders, also comes at a time of increased tensions in Japan about the American military presence there and how it is contributing to the spread of Covid-19. 

Fumio Kishida became prime minister of Japan in October after a decades-long political career that included stints as minister of foreign affairs and minister of defense. He served in the cabinet of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and belongs to the same party as his immediate predecessor Yoshihide Suga, so his administration is likely to have much continuity from previous leaders. 

In a call Thursday to prepare for the leaders’ meeting, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary General of Japan's National Security Secretariat Akiba Takeo discussed the importance of the alliance between the two countries, as well as how to approach issues with North Korea, China, and the broader Indo-Pacific, according to a National Security Council statement. Sullivan and Takeo also “concurred on the importance of solidarity in signaling to Moscow the strong, united response that would result from any attack” on Ukraine.

Biden and Kishida have likely met at least briefly before, given Biden’s focus on foreign policy during his long career in government and Kishida’s prior service as the Japanese foreign minister. But Friday’s virtual meeting is expected to be a first step to build a personal relationship between the two men, which is critical in Japanese politics, said Zach Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“They really want to make sure the president and prime minister have a chance to get to know each other. I think that’s goal No. 1, and everything else is secondary,” Cooper said. “The Japanese are always very focused on these personal relationships. They feel that’s part of what worked fairly well with recent presidents.”

Biden’s longtime relationship with Rahm Emanuel was one reason that Japanese officials were happy with his selection as ambassador to Japan, despite partisan skirmishes in the United States over his record on police brutality and racial violence while mayor of Chicago. After being confirmed in December, Emanuel headed to Tokyo on Saturday, overcoming the odds on his political career that was thought to be dead, POLITICO reported

Cooper predicted Biden and Kishida will have a “pretty easy relationship. Kishida is a very composed politician, so I think he’ll be good at interpersonal dynamics.” 

Friday’s virtual meeting between Biden and Kishido is also expected to focus on the importance of fighting climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, the South China Morning Post reported

Covid-19 cases are soaring in Japan, prompting officials to lock down U.S. military bases in the country. Since Jan. 10, officials have dramatically restricted American troops’ and families’ ability to travel off base except for “essential activities,” to try to stop the virus spreading from service members to Japanese citizens in the surrounding communities.  

On Thursday, Japanese press reported that 40 Japanese service members who traveled to the United States for a joint exercise tested positive. The article says that it’s not clear how the Japanese troops got infected, but also says that the service members had tested negative before travel and had not left Camp Pendleton. 

Maj. Jim  Stenger, a Marine Corps spokesperson, said the Japanese troops tested positive “upon initial testing.” He added that all Japanese troops were tested before leaving Japan, and again within 72 hours of arriving in the United States, and that the Japanese defense force’s protocol is to quarantine “all positive cases, all close contacts, and all close contacts to close contacts for 14 days.”   

The conflict over American troops potentially spreading Covid-19 in Japanese communities is the latest in a long line of local complaints about the forces, especially on Okinawa, where most U.S. troops in Japan are based. Cooper said he expects Kishida and Biden to release some sort of joint comment about the importance of fighting Covid to try to quickly manage those concerns.

Jennifer Hlad contributed to this report.