Mr. Kishida Goes to Washington, And What it Means for the United States
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Mr. Kishida Goes to Washington, And What it Means for the United States

18 January 2023

Summary

Bottom Line

  • Joe Biden and Fumio Kishida agreed that the US-Japan alliance has never been stronger.
  • Washington enthusiastically endorsed revisions to Tokyo’s national security strategy aimed at making Japan stronger militarily.
  • China denounced the meeting, saying that the agreement represents a “ticking time bomb” for the region’s hard-sustained peace.
Kishida Is Warmly Welcomed in Washington Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to the United States—on the less than auspicious day of Friday the 13th—was a triumph for the prime minister, whose favorability ratings had slumped due to the financial ties of several of his ministers with a religious group. Even center-left Asahi , Japan’s second-largest circulation daily and a perennial critic of Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party and of the prime minister himself, described President Joe Biden as “effusive in his praise of Tokyo’s decision to drastically beef up its defensive posture while pledging continued unwavering support to the defense of Japan.” Biden enthusiastically endorsed the revisions to Japan’s defense policy, and re-iterated for the n th time the unwavering commitment of the United States to the defense of Japan, including the contested Senkaku Islands, under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, using its full range of capabilities, adding that this included, if need be, nuclear weapons. The two leaders discussed cooperation on sensitive technology, space development, and clean energy, including nuclear energy. Biden and Kishida also agreed to work together in moving toward a world without nuclear weapons—always a sensitive topic in Japan as the only country ever to have experienced a nuclear attack and gaining heightened sensitivity after Russian president Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Kishida expressed satisfaction, saying that he had “further deepened [his] personal relationship of trust with President Biden and [felt] confident that the meeting will serve as an important step toward further strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.” Japan’s Defense Reforms Kishida’s visit came as the climax of an event-filled three weeks that began with the release and approval of revisions to the three major documents that guide the country’s national security. Although the process began only at the very end of September, the report was to be completed by December to fit in with Japan’s annual budget cycle. Japan’s relations with China had been poor for more than a decade, with regular intrusions of Chinese ships and planes into and over waters that Japan regards as included within its exclusive economic zone, and there was no doubt that the major focus of the new defense strategy is China, with North Korea and Russia playing supporting roles. That the panel’s first meeting occurred on the anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations may have been meant as a symbol of dissatisfaction with the current status of relations. Kishida, who presided over the first meeting, instructed the panel of ten experts, headed by a former ambassador to the United States, that no options were to be ruled out. The ten actually met relatively few times before presenting what Asahi complained was a “done deal.” In essence, the conclusions were indeed foregone, with major component parts appearing piecemeal in the press weeks before the release. Japan’s right to conduct counterstrikes was sanctioned, albeit on condition of an imminent threat, and a network of fifty compact satellites was to be deployed in a low Earth orbit to track next-generation hypersonic missiles that are capable of evading current defense systems. The satellites would work together to give Japan the ability to assess whether enemy military units were preparing to mount hostile action. Japan would itself have hypersonic missiles by 2030, envisioned as the third and final stage of a process preceded by first the acquisition of Tomahawk and other battle-tested cruise missiles from the United States, and second, extending the range of the indigenous Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles from the current 200 km to over 1,000 km. A US artillery brigade stationed on Okinawa would be reconfigured as a mobile unit able to fan out quickly to defend the Nansei Islands, with joint US-Japan exercises held to retake the islands from an unnamed adversary. Cyberdefense was to be a major component of defense strategy, with concomitant increases in specialized personnel and a framework created for the utilization of space that included enhanced participation by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as Japan’s military is euphemistically called. There was to be increased cooperation among the SDF, the coast guard, and organizations such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. A recurring theme was the need to improve inter-service cooperation. These and other improvements would raise Japan’s defense budget from 2 percent to 2 percent of GDP by 2027, thus bringing it into line with NATO standards, even though not all NATO countries meet that standard. Japan, though not a good geographic fit with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has coordinated with NATO in recent years, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Though brought from planning to approval in a short period of time, considerable controversy swirled around the process, much of it coming from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, the pacifist-leaning Komeito with its ties to influential Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai. The latter is active in China and has so far been tolerated by Chinese authorities despite the increasing restrictions that have been placed on other religions. Komeito argued forcefully against the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities and also opposed referring to China as a threat. In the end, the party was able to pull the defense policy debate in a more dovish direction, agreeing to counterstrike capabilities under restricted conditions, changing “serious security threat” to an “unprecedented strategic challenge” and blocking the Liberal Democratic Party’s desire to scrap a legal provision stating that the coast guard will not function as a “military” organization. The revised security documents go only as far as saying that the coast guard should “constantly coordinate and cooperate” with the SDF. Weakening the language, however, will inevitably weaken the government’s ability to use it in a time of crisis, or even to serve as a deterrent to a Chinese attack. China’s Reaction Beijing reacted as expected, alternately portraying Japan as on the one hand a helpless pawn in the struggle between a peace-loving People's Republic of China—one cartoon showed a tiny Hello Kitty (who has no mouth) plush toy wearing a rising sun tee shirt sitting on the lap of an evilly smirking Uncle Sam—and on the other as the proactive perpetrator of a scheme to revive its pre-World War II hyper-militaristic mentality. In the latter scenario, a samurai in full armor marches alongside a stubble-bearded GI in camouflage clothing. At no point did state media acknowledge that the People's Republic of China’s expansionist policies in the East and South China seas might have influenced Japan’s turn toward a more assertive defense posture.   Another item that China, among others, took note of is that Kishida’s route to the United States was unusual, deviating from the normal and more direct east-to-west route from Tokyo to Washington.

Creators/Authors

June Teufel Dreyer
June Teufel Dreyer, a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida.