President Joe Biden welcomed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to the White House on Friday, a visit that underscored the deepening U.S.-Japanese strategic alliance and Tokyo’s growing sense of vulnerability amid regional security threats, mainly from China, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prior to the Biden-Fumio summit, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin joined their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Secretary Yasumichi Hamada, to initiate a series of changes in defense posture, military training arrangements and command relationships, including a plan to reorganize U.S. Marine Corps forces in Okinawa.
The changes, announced Wednesday in Washington, suggest the two allies are taking more seriously the possibility of war in the Indo-Pacific region in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or a North Korean nuclear strike. It puts into effect Japan’s new national security strategy, released in December, which warns of a “potentially serious future scenario in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in East Asia,” and calls for a long-range “counterstrike” capability that would allow it to reach targets on mainland China.
The Kishida government also plans to double Japan’s defense budget to nearly 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2027 which would put Japan in the top five in the world in terms of military spending.
The initiatives have the blessing of the United States. White House Press Secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said at Wednesday’s briefing that Japan’s “unprecedented” national security strategy and commitment to strengthening its national defense “will strengthen deterrence in the region to promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and globally.”
While Tokyo has been gradually strengthening its defense capabilities over the past decade in response to Chinese military activity in the South China Sea, waters around Taiwan and in the East China Sea – particularly around the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan – the announcement, made in 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 said.
Kishida is currently facing low approval ratings at home due to various scandals involving his cabinet members.
[Ukraine war is wake-up call]
China’s attack on Taiwan remains hypothetical, but Russia’s war against Ukraine has awakened the Japanese public to the possibility of one country invading another. Zach Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focused on U.S. strategy in Asia, says China sent warships and fighter jets and fired ballistic missiles around Taiwan in response to then-Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last year. This has caused panic.
As China’s attacks on Taiwan spread, Tokyo is seeking to strengthen its ability to protect itself. It Support the approximately 50,000 U.S. troops currently operating in Japan. This would help with possible U.S. operations to defend Taipei in a conflict in China’s backyard.
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.
The U.S. and Japan have initiated an “Economic 2+2” dialogue since last July, 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.”