What its Washington visit means for Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may have an abysmal approval rating back home, but he’s the man of the hour in Washington. The Japanese premier is spending a few days in Washington for talks with President Joe Biden at the White House, leading up to the first trilateral summit between the United States, Japan, and the Philippines on Thursday. 

Heading into those talks, Kishida and his administration want their American colleagues to know just how much they cherish Japan’s 72-year-long alliance with the U.S., their commitment to making it even stronger, and their intention to be a more active player in pursuit of an open and free Indo-Pacific. Takeo Akiba, Kishida’s national security adviser, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post trumpeting Japan’s newfound leadership role. Kishida has taken a more sober approach in his media appearances, stressing that Asia is at a pivotal moment in history. 

“In our neighborhood, there are countries that are developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and others that are building up their defense capabilities in an opaque way,” the prime minister told CNN last weekend.

There’s no question that Japan is feeling the heat — not necessarily because a war with China over Taiwan or in the South China Sea is imminent but rather because Beijing is acting like an aspiring hegemon. Chinese coast guard and maritime militia boats have been messing around with Philippine vessels as Filipino sailors go on ordinary resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal, which Manila and Beijing both claim. The Senkakus, the uninhabited, Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea, remain a point of contention with China.

North Korea, the always pernicious irritant in the region, has been bolstering its relationship with Russia, albeit one that is probably more tactical than strategic. Russia’s war in Ukraine has also deeply affected Japan’s sensibilities: True or not, Japanese officials are convinced that Russian success thousands of miles away in Ukraine could encourage Chinese President Xi Jinping to pull the trigger on an invasion of Taiwan.

Traditionally, Japan acts like Asia’s Germany: a country that is wealthy, technologically impressive, and diplomatically influential but also highly cautious and afraid of overstepping. Of course, Japan’s constitution has a big part to play in this. Drafted by the American victors after Tokyo’s defeat in World War II, it forbids Japan from maintaining land, sea, and air forces and prohibits the use of force to resolve disputes. Throughout the preceding seven decades, Japanese leaders regardless of political party and the Japanese public have been socialized into keeping defense spending at a minimum and, in essence, letting the U.S. military take care of Japan’s security. 

But with the international environment in East Asia changing, Japan’s prevailing assumptions have changed along with it. While Tokyo’s security policy is still wedded firmly to its alliance with Washington, Japanese leaders are in the process of building up their military capacity and broadening their strategic ties with countries such as Australia and the Philippines that share similar threat perceptions on China in particular. 

Shinzo Abe, the late Japanese prime minister, was instrumental in this shift. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, otherwise known as the Quad, between the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia was Abe’s brainchild. In 2015, he pushed through a big reinterpretation in Japan’s constitution that permitted Tokyo to use force in an overseas conflict to protect allies if peaceful options weren’t available and failing to intervene would cost Japanese lives. 

Kishida picked up where his predecessor left off and is arguably doing even more than Abe could have imagined. Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy repeatedly cited China’s growing military capabilities, assertiveness in the economic realm, and challenge to basic rules of the road, such as respect for state sovereignty, as reasons why Tokyo is undergoing a slow military buildup of its own.

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Japan’s cabinet approved its largest-ever defense budget in December and is projected to spend more than $300 billion on its military over the next five years. Much of that money will go toward the development and purchase of missile defense systems, long-range land attack missiles, and various intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms for which Japan remains dependent on the U.S. Japan’s acquiring of a counterstrike capability, which can hold Chinese and North Korean targets at risk, may sound like common sense to many but is really a revolutionary evolution in Japanese defense policy.

Biden and Kishida will discuss all of it this week. Some announcements, such as work toward establishing more seamless command and control between U.S. and Japanese forces, have already been previewed. However, what’s clear is that Japan is well on its way to translating its latent power into hard power. 

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own. 

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