U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed Prime Minister Kishida Fumio at the White House Friday in a visit that underscores the deepening U.S.-Japan strategic alliance and Tokyo’s growing sense of vulnerability amid regional security threats, mainly from China, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
"The United States is fully, thoroughly, completely committed to the alliance,” Biden said. “And more importantly, to Japan's defense.”
Ahead of the Biden-Kishida summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, along with their Japanese counterparts Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa and Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu, launched a series of changes in defense posture, military training arrangements and command relationships, including plans to reorganize U.S. Marine Corps units based on Okinawa.
The changes, announced in Washington on Wednesday, signal the two allies are taking more seriously the possibility of war in the Indo-Pacific in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or North Korea’s nuclear strikes. It puts in force Japan’s new National Security Strategy, released in December, that warns of the possibility that “a serious situation may arise in the future in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in East Asia,” and calls for long-range “counterstrike” capability that would enable it to reach targets in mainland China.
“Japan and the United States are currently facing the most challenging and complex security environment in recent history,” Kishida said through an interpreter, touting his country’s national security strategy that he says will "ensure peace and prosperity in the region.”
Kishida’s government also plans to double Japan's defense budget to almost 2% of its gross domestic product by 2027, which would put the nation into the world’s top five in military spending.
The moves came with U.S. blessing. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told VOA in a briefing Wednesday that Japan’s “unprecedented” national security strategy and commitment to boosting its defense “will strengthen deterrence in the region in order to advance peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and globally.”
While Tokyo has gradually been bolstering its defense capabilities in the past decade in response to ramped up Chinese military activities in the South China Sea, the waters around Taiwan, as well as the East China Sea—particularly around Senkaku, the group of islands claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan—the announcements made within the past month surprised many observers.
“Nobody thought it was going to happen this quickly,” said Jeffrey Hornung, senior political scientist specializing in Japanese and East Asian security at Rand Corp. “Nobody thought it was going to happen under this prime minister who is not known as a defense hawk by any means. And yet, he's essentially turning over Japan's postwar defense policy in a way that nobody had envisioned,” Hornung told VOA.
Kishida is currently facing low approval ratings at home due to various scandals involving his cabinet members.
Ukraine war is wake-up call
A Chinese attack on Taiwan is still hypothetical, but Russia’s war on Ukraine has awakened the Japanese public to the possibility of one country invading another. That, combined with China’s dispatch of its warships and fighter jets and firing of ballistic missiles around Taiwan in response to then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last year, spooked people, said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow focusing on U.S. strategy in Asia at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Those two actions by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, have convinced many in Tokyo that, look, especially in these autocratic countries that are run largely by one leader, you just can't be that confident in the actions they’re going to take,” Cooper told VOA. “And so, Japan has to step up much more actively now than it had been prepared to do so before.”
In the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan spilling over, Tokyo is seeking to bolster the capacity to protect itself and support the approximately 50,000 American troops currently operating in Japan. This will help the U.S. in its likely move to defend Taipei in a conflict in China’s backyard.
“For us to have any shot at trying to push back aggression, we need a very strong Japan,” Hornung said.
Holding Russia responsible
Tokyo’s backing of U.S.-led efforts to slap sanctions against Moscow and provide Ukraine with financial, humanitarian and nonlethal military support was instrumental in securing the support of other non-NATO partners, including South Korea, Australia and Singapore.
“If Japan had not done this, those other countries would be much more hesitant. It would be seen much more as a transatlantic response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, rather than a global response from leading democracies,” Cooper said.
Before Washington, Kishida toured France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Canada to coordinate approach on Ukraine and other agenda items for the G-7 summit in May that Japan will host. Officials say Japan will use its G-7 chairmanship and its two-year term at the United Nations Security Council to continue pressing Russia to stop its war.
Remain apart on trade
While the China and Russia threat have brought the allies closer, the U.S. and Japan remain apart on trade since then-President Donald Trump’s 2017 withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement pushed in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Japan went ahead with the deal, which eventually became the 2018 Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – an 11-country bloc representing one of the largest free-trade areas in the world.
Despite repeated urging by Tokyo, the Biden administration has not joined the CPTPP, as it is viewed as politically perilous at home, where protectionist sentiment runs high – a reality that Japan understands, said Shihoko Goto, director for geoeconomics and Indo-Pacific enterprise at the Wilson Center.
“What will probably happen is CPTPP will be mentioned, but there’s not going to be any push to have the United States join,” Goto told VOA.
The U.S. and Japan have launched the “Economic 2+2” dialogue beginning July last year, but the talks have focused on increasing economic security such as securing supply chains, rather than trade liberalization.
Tokyo is expected to follow Washington’s steps to impose export controls on advanced semiconductors and other sensitive dual-use technologies to lessen Chinese economic clout. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Friday that Beijing will "pay close attention to the relevant move and resolutely safeguard its own interest."
Iuliia Iarmolenko contributed to this report.