The US and Japan announced their biggest upgrade to defense ties, during a Washington state visit, in which the leaders agreed that a Japanese astronaut will be the first non-American to walk on the Moon.

US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled their countries’ biggest ever upgrade in defense ties Wednesday during a White House state visit focused on countering a resurgent China.

Biden rolled out the red carpet for Kishida with a lavish dinner, plus music by US singer Paul Simon, as he underscored Japan’s importance as a key ally against Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region.

The two leaders even agreed that a Japanese astronaut will be the first non-American to walk on the Moon, as they sought to take the alliance to new heights.

“This is the most significant upgrade in our alliance since it was first established,” Biden, 81, told a press conference with Kishida in the White House Rose Garden.

The two leaders unveiled plans to restructure the US military command in Japan, the biggest such change since the 1960s. The move is aimed at making US and Japanese forces more nimble in the event of threats, such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The United States, Japan and Australia would also launch a joint air defense network, while Britain would take part in military exercises with Washington and Tokyo.

‘Peace and Stability’

For his part, Kishida hailed the Japan-US alliance as crucial for upholding peace and democracy in the region, where China has been increasingly assertive.

He called for “peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait—but also took aim at Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

“Ukraine today, maybe East Asia tomorrow,” he said.

Biden insisted that the military upgrade in China’s backyard was “purely defensive” but has made no bones about his desire to create alliances to counter China.

On Thursday, he will host the first trilateral summit between Japan, the Philippines and the United States, to support Manila amid tensions with China in the South China Sea.

The pomp-filled state visit for Kishida was however also meant to underscore the broader cultural and economic relations between two allied nations who were at war 80 years ago.

Biden announced that a Japanese person will be the first non-American to walk on the Moon, flying on a US mission due to take place in a few years’ time.

The leaders also announced deals for technology, including artificial intelligence and the economy.

‘Boldly Go’

The rest of the day was dedicated to extravagant hosting of 66-year-old Kishida and his wife Yuko.

Guests at the White House state dinner included actor Robert DeNiro, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, Apple chief Tim Cook and former President Bill Clinton and ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the White House said.

Biden led the room in a toast “to our alliance, to our friendship.”

Kishida is the first Japanese leader to get a US state visit since Shinzo Abe in 2015, and only the fifth world leader to receive one since Biden took office in 2021.

Four of those have been Asian leaders, reflecting Biden’s strategic priorities even as he wrestles with wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Staunchly pacifist for decades, Japan has in recent years made “some of the most significant, momentous changes” since World War II, US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said ahead of the visit.

Beijing said the United States and Japan had “smeared and attacked” China during the Washington summit.

“Ignoring China’s grave concerns, the US and Japan have smeared and attacked China on Taiwan and maritime issues, grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and seriously violated the basic norms governing international relations,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular press conference.

Danny Kemp, with AFP