HONG KONG — The United States and Japan are set to announce a historic upgrade to their security alliance on Wednesday, as President Joe Biden hosts Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for an official visit that will highlight Japan’s role in countering China in the Asia-Pacific.

The official visit, the first by a Japanese leader in nine years, also comes amid differences between the two countries over the proposed acquisition of U.S. Steel by a Japanese company.

On Tuesday, the Bidens welcomed Kishida and his wife at the White House before having dinner. The Biden-Kishida summit on Wednesday will be followed by a formal state dinner featuring dry-aged rib eye steak, cherry blossoms and a performance by Paul Simon.

On Thursday, Kishida will address a joint meeting of Congress, only the second Japanese leader to do so after then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2015. Then he will participate in trilateral talks with the U.S. and the Philippines that are the first of their kind.

Kishida concludes his trip with a Friday stop in North Carolina, where according to Japanese media he will visit the construction site of a new EV battery factory for Japanese automaker Toyota that is expected to generate 5,000 jobs for American workers.

In recent years, Japan has experienced a “sea change” in its perceptions of its security environment, as well as its role in it, said John Hemmings, senior associate director at the Pacific Forum research institute in Honolulu.

“They’ve become this sort of key enabler for the evolution of our security architecture,” he said.

Since taking office in 2021, Kishida has increased defense spending in Japan, a major shift in a country whose pacifist constitution has limited its military to self-defense since it lost World War II. Japan has also eased a postwar ban on the export of lethal weapons and has been a leader in establishing security groupings such as the Quad, which also includes the U.S., India and Australia.

The changes are driven by what Tokyo views as growing aggression by China as well as creeping doubts about U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific and its reliability as an ally.

The U.S.-Japan summit, which is focused primarily on security, is meant to reassure Tokyo about the U.S. commitment to the security alliance, said Rana Mitter, a professor of U.S.-Asia relations at the Harvard Kennedy School.

It’s a “very public signal” that even though the Biden administration has been working to improve relations with China, it is not turning away from its allies in the region, he said.

Biden and Kishida are expected to discuss plans to upgrade the U.S. military command structure in Japan, which hosts about 54,000 U.S. troops, as Tokyo prepares for a new joint headquarters that will oversee all of its military operations. The two countries will also establish a military industrial council to explore what kinds of defense weapons the U.S. and Japan can produce together.

The idea, Hemmings said, is to make the U.S. and Japanese militaries “much more capable of dealing with a near-peer adversary.”

Senior administration officials said Tuesday that Biden and Kishida would enter into a “major agreement” on lunar exploration. They will also announce major research partnerships on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors and clean energy. 

The trilateral talks on Thursday come as relations between China and the Philippines have been strained by repeated scuffles between their coast guard vessels in the South China Sea, a strategically important waterway that Beijing claims virtually in its entirety. The U.S. has said that its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines would apply to such encounters, raising the prospect of U.S. intervention if they were to escalate.

On Tuesday, demonstrators outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila trampled on an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping as they protested what they called Chinese “aggression” against the Philippines in the South China Sea.

With the trilateral talks with the Philippines, Hemmings said, the U.S. and Japan are taking an “extremely welcome step” toward making sure that the Philippines is not alone in defending its sovereignty and that “if anything, China’s the isolated one.”

China says its actions in the South China Sea are lawful and accuses the U.S., Japan and others of stoking tensions in the region by forging “small circles” of powers.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior director for East Asia and Oceania at the National Security Council, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and its associated groupings and alliances “are not about being against anyone or anything, they’re about what we’re for.”

In Congress, Mitter said, Kishida is likely to argue that the U.S. is “still very much needed” in the Asia-Pacific region.

“There’s general disillusionment amongst much of the U.S. electorate with the idea of too strong a U.S. security commitment around the world,” he said. “Prime Minister Kishida, I think, will be looking to push back against that and say, no, the U.S. presence is still really very important in the region, for Japan, for South Korea, for the Southeast Asian countries.”

Hemmings said he also expected Kishida to “double down” on Ukraine, as Biden struggles to win support in Congress for continued U.S. aid. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022, Kishida has warned that letting Moscow win would only embolden China in its aggression against Taiwan, a self-ruling island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.

“I think he’s going to really make that case very passionately,” Hemmings said. 

U.S. lawmakers are also likely to be focused on the planned purchase of U.S. Steel by Japan’s largest steelmaker, Nippon Steel. Biden, who is highly dependent on labor unions for his re-election campaign, has come out against the deal, saying it is vital for U.S. Steel to “remain an American steel company.”

Senior administration officials said the dispute would have little impact on the overall U.S.-Japan relationship, which they described as “a lot deeper and stronger and more significant than a single commercial deal.”

On Monday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi said Kishida was traveling to North Carolina “to convey to both Japan and the United States that Japanese companies are making significant contributions to the U.S. economy through investments and job creation.”

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