Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2024.04.24

Kishida's U.S. state visit may be a turning point in the nation's foreign policy

The prime minister seeks to chart a new course in furthering future relations with its top ally

The Japan times on Apr 11, 2024

International Politics/Diplomacy National Security

No other politician has such a wide "perception gap" in his home country and abroad than Fumio Kishida. The prime minister, on a state visit to the United States, declared the Japan-U.S. relationship as a "global partnership" at his summit meeting with President Joe Biden. Biden gave an unreserved thumbs up with U.S. media coverage being relatively favorable, while the Japanese media was mixed at best.

The liberal-leaning Asahi Shimbun already reported there was a proposal to strengthen cooperation in “‘command and control’ for the operation of their forces in case of emergency.” The paper offered the criticism that “If bilateral command and control is deepened, there is a risk that the Self-Defense Forces could effectively come under U.S. command in the event of a contingency. ... It is unclear how the Japanese side will be able to guarantee independent command authority.” Even conservative politician Ichiro Matsui warned that Kishida shouldn’t turn Japan into an “unlimited ATM.”

In contrast, U.S. President Biden stated the following at a joint news conference. “Over the last three years, the partnership between Japan and the United States has been transformed into a truly global partnership. And that's thanks in no small part to the courageous leadership of Prime Minister Kishida. And I mean that sincerely.” Biden's use of "truly" or his statement "I mean that sincerely" in his comments are probably genuine.

The U.S. president also stated that “this is the most significant upgrade in our alliance since it was first established,” and, with Japan's support for Ukraine, increased defense spending and improved Japan-South Korea relations in mind, said “I want to commend the prime minister himself. He is a statesman.” In the many joint news conferences I have observed so far, I can hardly remember one in which a U.S. president praised a Japanese prime minister to such a great extent.

The gap between Japanese and foreign perceptions is hardly new. The media coverage of the prime minister's visit to the U.S. follows a pattern. They tend to view such visits to the U.S. through the prism of a Japanese leader's domestic political standings, asking what will happen to the prime minister's approval ratings, what actions will be taken to boost their public appeal or what gifts will be given away, and so on.

Of all the visits to the U.S. by Japanese prime ministers over the past 70 years, there has never been a meeting in which the evolution of the Japan-U.S. military alliance was confirmed as much as this time.

This is only the fifth state visit by a Japanese prime minister to the U.S., following Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1987, Keizo Obuchi in 1999, Junichiro Koizumi in 2006 and Shinzo Abe in 2015. However, to the best of my knowledge, there are no reports that Nakasone’s 1987 visit to the U.S. was met with great fanfare. At the time, Japan-U.S. trade friction was in full swing and when Nakasone “appealed for Japan-U.S. cooperation in the security field,” President Ronald Reagan instead told him that the U.S. expected “more foreign companies to enter the Kansai Airport project.”

The situation was no different during Obuchi's visit in 1999. The opening lines of the joint statement touched on a multilateral initiative to revitalize private sector growth in Asia, but there was no mention of security issues.

This emphasis on economic and trade issues began to change dramatically with Koizumi's visit in 2006. The joint statement at that time, after referring to "their close personal friendship," read "The United States and Japan stand together not only against mutual threats but also for the advancement of core universal values such as freedom, human dignity and human rights, democracy, market economy and rule of law.” There was no more mention of trade frictions.

The 2015 Abe visit to the U.S. further encouraged this trend, with a joint statement stating that, "This transformation into a robust alliance and global partnership was not inevitable,” and “The journey our two countries have traveled demonstrates that reconciliation is possible when all sides are devoted to achieving it.” The references to U.S.-Japan “global partnership” and “reconciliation” were groundbreaking at the time.

In a sense, the Japan-U.S. relationship has undergone several upgrades since 1945. In my view, Japan-U.S. relations Version 1.0 occurred during the period of U.S. military occupation from 1945 to 1960. Version 2.0 took place from 1960 to 1991, from the revision of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty to the Gulf War. Version 3.0 would have been from 1991 to 2012, from the Gulf War to the Senkaku Islands' incidents and Version 4.0 occurred during the Abe (second) and Suga administrations, which started a fundamental review of Japan’s postwar national security policy.

Why has the Japan-U.S. alliance evolved so much? It is, after all, thanks to China. Xi Jinping's stance toward foreign affairs is becoming more hard-line while Beijing has been unable to implement appropriate macroeconomic policies. If China's economy continues to stagnate amid continued domestic social instability, temptations to take hard-line measures may increase, making it even more difficult for the U.S. and Japan to deter China.

What was most striking during Kishida's visit to the U.S. was Biden's remarks at the beginning of the joint news conference: "Together, our countries are taking significant steps to strengthen defense and security cooperation, we 're modernizing command and control structures and we're increasing the interoperability and planning of our militaries so they can work together in a seamless and effective way.”

To put it in simple terms, the greatest achievement of Kishida’s visit to the U.S. is the apparent deepening of Japan-U.S. joint military operations. While Japan maintains its own command of the SDF, both it and the U.S. have begun to seriously develop a "posture that allows them to fight together," and not just conceptually but rather on real battlegrounds within the scope of Japan’s current Constitution. Hopefully, our neighbors understand this.