Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Mr. Kishida Goes to Washington, And What it Means for the United States
Mr. Kishida Goes to Washington, And What it Means for the United States

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

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 nth 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 1 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. This trip had begun in the opposite direction, with stops in Rome, Paris, London, and Ottawa, arousing speculation that the government meant to signal that the United States was not its only partner. The official explanation was that Kishida intended to visit all of the G7 countries in preparation to hosting the G7’s summit in Hiroshima in May. It does not, however, explain why Berlin was not included on the itinerary. Although Kishida and his foreign and defense ministers are expected to meet their German counterparts in March and German planes and ships have recently exercised with the SDF, the omission is still odd. The exclusion of Berlin from Kishida’s itinerary aside, the significance of the usual route to Washington was also much remarked on. One explanation was that Tokyo wanted to go from being a spoke in the security architecture that has Washington as its hub to becoming part of the hub; another was that Japan was transitioning from its traditional role of shield to the American spear to becoming a spear in itself. Both fit into Beijing’s narrative of an increasingly menacing Japan. China took special umbrage at the Reciprocal Access Agreement between London and Tokyo that gives each the right to station troops on the other’s soil, with Sunak stating “we know that our security is shared and it is indivisible.” Beijing, already concerned about the AUKUS agreement for the United Kingdom and the United States to build nuclear submarines for Australia, had earlier warned  Tokyo against participating in a JAUKUS.

Global Times described Britain and Japan as “down-and-out powers”: one an ex-empire on which the sun had long ago set, and the “rising sun” of the other as having difficulty rising again. “They have ambitions but no strength to support them … They expect synergy from their bunch-up, which is almost impossible for two countries deep in decline and have absolutely no future in the Asia-Pacific.” Sunak further angered Beijing by refusing to rule out sending arms to Taiwan, saying that China poses a “systemic challenge to British values and interests and represents the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.”

Will the Reforms Succeed?

Considering, among other factors, Chinese anger, tepid support from Komeito, and Asahi’s opposition, how much of the proposed strategy will come to fruition remains to be seen. Many of the reforms are not expected to be implemented until 2025 or later. While opinion surveys show that the Japanese population strongly supports enhanced defense, only a minority support the use of force to back it up. In a poll published in October, 79 percent of respondents were in favor of increased defense expenditures and 21 percent against, although a November poll showed that despite 79 percent of Japanese feeling a sense of crisis about the situation in Taiwan 74 percent were opposed or relatively opposed to the SDF joining with the US military to fight the Chinese military. Only 22 percent indicated approval or relative approval. It is not clear whether those who oppose realize how difficult it would be for Japan to remain aloof in a military confrontation over Taiwan, even though the government has several times stated that Taiwan’s annexation by the People’s Republic of China would present a security danger to Japan.

Additionally, although there is broad consensus on raising taxes to pay for the reforms and the increase to 2 percent of GDP, the thorny question is taxes on whom and in what form. Japan’s national debt currently exceeds 1 quadrillion yen ($10.5 billion), with the brightest spot in its economy being trade with China. Beijing has in the past shown itself willing to weaponize trade to achieve its policy goals and might well do so again. Yet another factor inhibiting the implementation of the proposed reforms is the exodus of indigenous companies from producing defense-related items. The government has acknowledged the need for incentives, but there has been no resolution on what the level of subsidies to the corporations should be, and what form a proposed government-private partnership should take. 

On the reform of the SDF, improving better inter-service coordination and integrating the coast guard into their operations has been talked about for decades with little progress to date. Staffing levels for the SDF are an ongoing problem since the forces have not been meeting their recruitment quotas for years and the new strategy does not boost the size of the SDF above the ceiling of 247,000 set a decade ago. According to former and currently serving SDF officers, Japan’s plan to undertake its biggest military build-up since World War II without increasing the services’ headcount is flawed, casting doubt over the country’s efforts to deter China and even far smaller North Korea. Improved technology will still require trained personnel to operate and maintain the equipment. While pivoting to drones could help, doing so would take years and require additional trained staff. Finally, residents of the Nansei Islands are uncomfortable with the possible presence of military personnel, even though the brigade will be stationed on Okinawa’s main island except in extreme emergencies.

The Future  

Kishida’s visit has unquestionably strengthened the US-Japan alliance. As always, there are many imponderables. Some on each side harbor misgivings about how steadfast the other’s commitment is, but for the near future these would seem unfounded. Washington’s support is bipartisan and though Japanese conservatives had doubts about both Kishida and his foreign minister’s commitment to the alliance, both have been consistent supporters thus far. Although Kishida’s hold on the prime minister’s office is not assured, his likely successors may be more committed to the alliance rather than less. In December one frontrunner, Koichi Hagiuda, became the first Liberal Democratic Party executive to visit Taiwan in nineteen years, prompting speculation that he intends to position himself as the heir to pro-Taiwan and pro-US former prime minister Shinzo Abe. Another likely successor to Kishida is Nobuo Kishi, a former defense minister, scion of a political dynasty and Abe’s younger brother, though he has recently battled health problems. In short, the continued stability of the US-Japan alliance seems assured while the likelihood of a Japanese administration more pliable by Beijing is not.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Elizabeth Fraser)