Mar 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Japan's prime minister first to visit White House

Japan Prime Minister Yoshide Suga is seen celebrating his election as head of his political party.

Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga. Photo: STR/JIJI Press/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden is planning to host Japan’s prime minister at the White House as soon as this April, the first in-person foreign leader visit of his presidency, according to people familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: An invitation to Yoshihide Suga would telegraph to allies and potential adversaries, including China, that the U.S.-Japan alliance will remain the linchpin of the post-World War II security framework in the Pacific.

  • The invite also would signal a partial return to normalcy as to how the Biden administration conducts foreign policy during the pandemic, with the new president beginning face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders in the Oval Office.
  • The White House declined to confirm the upcoming meeting, which has not been finalized and could slide to later in the spring, with the state of the pandemic a key factor.

Driving the news: Biden plans to participate in the first leaders' gathering of the so-called Quad this month, joining a virtual conference with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, Axios reported last week.

  • Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that meeting, saying, “It will be four leaders, four countries, working together constructively for the peace, prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific.”
  • China doesn’t welcome the summit, and on Sunday its foreign minister, Wang Yi, called it “group politics" and “selective multilateralism," according to Xinhua.

Flashback: The first foreign leader to call on President Trump was British Prime Minister Theresa May on Jan. 27, 2017. Her visit included lunch and a joint press conference.

  • President Obama also picked Japan for his first visit from a head of government, hosting Prime Minister Tara Aso on Feb. 24, 2009. While he welcomed Aso to the Oval, he did not extend the diplomatic trappings of lunch or a joint press conference.
  • Trump hosted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago, making him the first foreign leader to visit the former president's Florida club. They played a round of golf on Feb. 11, 2017.

The intrigue: Foreign leaders' visits are always diplomatic dances with both sides working carefully on the choreography.

  • The biggest prize is a state dinner, which Obama extended to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November of his first year, and Trump gave to French President Emmanuel Macron in April of his second year in office.
  • Suga would not normally be eligible for a state dinner, since they usually are reserved for heads of state. In Japan, that's Emporer Naruhito.

What we’re watching: Suga faces political challenges at home, so any perks Biden extends — such as a formal (or working) meal, or a well-staged photo-op — will be monitored as a signal of his tacit support for the prime minister.

Go deeper