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Biden welcomes Japanese prime minister to White House as he tries to counter China

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Washington — President Biden held his first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader at the White House Friday, sitting down with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The two spoke about a range of issues, from climate change to the coronavirus pandemic, and they also discussed China and North Korea

During a joint press conference with Suga, Mr. Biden talked of the "personal bonds" between the U.S. and Japan, and said those bonds would keep the relationship vibrant for decades to come. Mr. Biden said the U.S. and Japan renewed the Mansfield fellowship, a program begun in 1994, while Mr. Biden was a senator, to promote unity between the Japan and the U.S. 

"We're committed to defending and advancing our shared values including human rights and the rule of law. We're gonna work together to prove democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century," the president said. 

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 16: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan hold a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 16, 2021 in Washington, DC.  Doug Mills / Getty Images

Through a translator, Suga thanked the president for the warm welcome and called the U.S. Japan's "best friend." The importance of the alliance has reached new heights, Suga said. Suga also said through a translator that he and Mr. Biden had "serious talks" about China, and about the need to oppose any forceful moves from China to alter the status quo. Suga also said he spoke with Mr. Biden about racist aggressions against Asians around the world and said Mr. Biden's response strengthened his confidence in America's commitment to democracy. 

In the press conference, Mr. Biden was immediately asked to address why he's pursuing infrastructure legislation before a serious legislative push on gun violence, the day after yet another mass shooting in Indiana. Mr. Biden said he's been the strongest advocate of ending gun violence and urged the House and Senate to pass universal background checks. 

"It's a national embarrassment. It is a national embarrassment what's going on," the president said of mass shootings and shootings on the nation's streets. He said, "this has to end." 

Mr. Biden was not asked about the continuation of the historically low 15,000-refugee cap put in place by former President Trump, which Democrats heavily criticized on Friday. For his part, Suga answered a question about China's moves on Taiwan, but did not answer a question on COVID-19 concerns regarding the upcoming Olympics. 

Before Mr. Biden and Suga met, Vice President Kamala Harris also met briefly with the prime minister.

"The president and I are very excited about the conversations we will have with the prime minister today," she said. "As you know, Mr. Prime Minister, you and I met just about a month ago, during the Quad summit, which was a meeting with the United States, with our allies — Japan, with Australia, and with India — where we had extensive conversations about a collaboration and a friendship around some of the biggest challenges facing our world."

A senior Biden administration official told reporters on Thursday that the two leaders would announce a Japanese commitment to a $2 billion initiative "to work on 5G and next steps beyond 5G" in partnership with the U.S.

"I think the idea of the visit is to underscore what we would really describe as almost an axiom or a maxim for the U.S. role in the region: The United States can only be effective in Asia when the U.S.-Japan relationship is strong and Japan is steady and stable," the official said.

China was also expected to figure prominently in their discussions, as the U.S. seeks to enlist allies in confronting Beijing's military expansion and human rights abuses.

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