By Elaine Lies and David Brunnstrom
TOKYO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The leaders of the United States and Japan will contend with China’s growing might, North Korea’s missiles and Russia’s aims in Ukraine when they hold their first substantial talks since Fumio Kishida became Japanese prime minister in October.
The online meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Kishida, scheduled for Friday Washington time, will build on this month’s so-called “two-plus-two” discussions when their defense and foreign ministers pledged to work together against efforts to destabilize the Indo-Pacific region.
Alarm over China’s growing assertiveness, tensions over Taiwan, and shared concern over Ukraine have raised Japan’s global profile on security matters, while North Korea has ramped up tensions with an unusually rapid series of missile tests.
Pyongyang, which fired tactical guided missiles this week in its latest of a series of tests, warned on Thursday it might rethink a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese counterpart Akiba Takeo set the agenda on Thursday when they spoke about their respective approaches to North Korea, China and economic issues in the Indo-Pacific, the White House said.
“Sullivan underscored concern about the possibility of further Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the two concurred on the importance of solidarity in signaling to Moscow the strong, united response that would result from any attack,” a White House statement said.
The White House has said the leaders will discuss economic and security matters, emerging technology, cybersecurity, climate change and other bilateral issues.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday the aim was “to further strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance” and ensure “a free and open Indo-Pacific” – language used to describe U.S. efforts to push back against China.
The talks follow other security-related meetings involving Indo-Pacific leaders – two-plus-two talks between Japan and France on Thursday and between Australian and British foreign and defense ministers on Friday.
Japan’s defense minister said after the talks with France that the security situation in the Indo-Pacific was unstable and “getting tougher.”
Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia under former President Barack Obama and now with Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank, said the two-plus-two meeting showed Washington and Tokyo were on the same wavelength.
“We should expect their discussion to focus on practical measures to deter and defend against destabilizing behavior, whether from North Korea or in hot spots like the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China Seas,” he said.
China has stepped up military and diplomatic pressure to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan, which it claims as its own.
Messaging on China becomes all the more important as Biden and Kishida both face elections this year, for Japan’s upper house of parliament in July and U.S. midterm congressional elections in November.
“As the election approaches, I think Kishida will be called upon to show a resolute stance against China, and the United States is in the same position,” said Airo Hino of Tokyo’s Waseda University.
Both nations are reviewing their security strategy, with details expected to be unveiled later this year. Japan has approved record defense spending for 2022.
Japan will be looking at not just strategy but also its defense programs, including procurement, its Washington ambassador, Koji Tomita, told the Brookings Institution think tank on Tuesday.
“The new review will have a much sharper focus on what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific region. And I think the picture we are having in this region is increasingly troubling.”
Japan will beef up its defenses of islands near Taiwan, Kishida said this week, following a promise in October to revise security strategy so as to consider “all options, including possession of so-called enemy-strike capabilities.”
(Writing by Elaine Lies and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by David Dolan, Clarence Fernandez and Howard Goller)