SENDAI, Japan – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday praised the resolve of the Japanese people in their efforts to recover from the tsunami and reaffirmed the two countries' alliance as vital for regional peace and prosperity.
In a speech at Sendai's airport, which American military personnel helped clear of debris after the tsunami, Biden spoke of the U.S. public's admiration of Japan after the March 11 disaster, which left about 20,000 people dead or missing and ravaged hundreds of miles (kilometers) of coastline.
"The disaster met its match in the legendary industriousness and relentless perseverance of the Japanese people," he said.
Biden, who also visited China and Mongolia during his eight-day Asian trip, stressed the strong economic and military ties between Japan and the U.S., calling their security alliance the "foundation of this region's security and prosperity for over half a century."
Under the pact, nearly 50,000 American troops are stationed in Japan, many of whom participated in a humanitarian relief mission called "Operation Tomodachi," or Operation Friend, after March's threefold disaster — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
Biden's visit comes as China's rising economic, military and political clout somewhat overshadows Japan, which is wrestling with a two-decade economic slump, a bulging deficit and aging population — and now recovery from catastrophe. In his first trip to Asia as vice president, Biden spent five days in China, but will be in Japan only two.
Still, he stressed Japan's importance to U.S. interests in the region.
"The United States is and will remain a Pacific power. America's focus on this critical region will only grow in the years to come as Asia plays an ever-increasing role in the global economy and international affairs," he said. "The anchor of that relationship will be Japan."
Biden laid flowers at the site of a destroyed home not far from the airport and visited evacuees living in temporary housing, where he chatted, shook hands and handed out baseball caps.
Earlier Tuesday, he met with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who thanked him for the "enormous assistance" from the U.S. after the disaster. Kan said the vice president's trip demonstrates that "Japan is open for business."
Biden told Kan that the American public was impressed with the stoicism and courage of the Japanese people, calling it a model for the whole world.
Kan is widely expected to resign in coming weeks or even days over his administration's perceived lack of leadership in handling the triple crisis.
Referring to the natural disaster in Japan and budget problems in the U.S., Biden told Kan that "there are voices in the world who are counting us out. They are making a very bad bet."
During his time in China, Biden had extensive time with the country's expected future leader, Xi Jinping, and delivered a strong message of the interdependence between the U.S. and China, the world's two biggest economies.
Biden also made the case for continued U.S. economic vitality despite current budget woes and sought to reassure China's leaders and ordinary citizens about the safety of their assets in the United States following the downgrading of America's credit rating.
On Wednesday, Biden plans to visit a U.S. air force base west of Tokyo to thank military and civilian personnel for helping with relief and recovery efforts after the disaster.
Associated Press writer Malcolm Foster in Tokyo contributed to this report.