Japan doubles down on the US alliance as China looms

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Fumio Kishida lacks charisma and is unpopular at home. But when the Japanese prime minister visits Washington this week, he will receive a hero’s welcome.

The popularity of Kishida with the Biden administration goes well beyond routine backslapping for a close ally. Under him, Japan has made some of the most important changes in its foreign and security policies since the second world war. These shifts are driven by Japan’s determination to prevent an authoritarian China from dominating the Indo-Pacific.

The increasing closeness of Washington and Tokyo will be showcased when Kishida addresses Congress on Thursday. Plans for American and Japanese military commanders to work alongside each other in Tokyo will also be spelt out this week. In future, some of the military planning that the US currently does from Hawaii will be carried out from Japan. It is also likely that Japan will increase technological co-operation with Aukus — the Australia-UK-US security pact.

The final piece of Kishida’s Washington visit will be a trilateral summit between Japan, the US and the Philippines, underlining Washington and Tokyo’s joint determination to support the Filipinos, as they come under increasing pressure from Beijing in the South China Sea.

All these initiatives build on big changes that have already been made in Japan’s national security policy. Under Kishida’s leadership, Japan has committed to spending more on defence and hitting a target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product by 2027. In a break with Japan’s postwar pacifism, the Kishida government has also moved away from the country’s traditional ban on arms exports. Japan will now allow overseas sales of a new fighter plane that it is jointly developing with Britain and Italy. The government has also patched up relations with South Korea, repairing a damaging rift between two vital American allies in the Indo-Pacific.

In some ways, it is surprising that all this should happen under the mild-mannered Kishida rather than the more overtly nationalistic and forceful Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister from 2012 to 2020. But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 fundamentally changed geopolitical thinking in Japan, allowing Kishida to push through changes championed by Abe.

There are important Asian countries — India and Indonesia, for example — that believe Russia’s attack on Ukraine has no implications for their own national security. Japan takes a very different view. Kishida has said repeatedly that “the Ukraine of today may be the east Asia of tomorrow” — citing Chinese maritime bullying, as well as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, as evidence of the rising threat of war.

History and geography both play a role in Japan’s wariness of Russia. Russia is a close neighbour. Tokyo is closer to Vladivostok than Beijing. And rivalry between the two countries stretches back to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.

But it is the implications of the war in Ukraine for the future behaviour of China and North Korea that have really put Japan on alert. The Kishida government sees that the conflict has pushed Beijing and Moscow closer together. Russia and China conducted a joint bomber flight over the Sea of Japan in December. China is also helping to keep the Russian economy afloat, while Russia’s military relationship with North Korea has become closer. Viewed from Tokyo, these developments increasingly look like linked threats.

The belief that Japan is living in dangerous times and in a dangerous region, and needs to get closer to America in response, extends beyond the Tokyo policymaking elite. In previous eras, Kishida’s hawkish moves would have sparked serious public protests — but not now. Yasushi Watanabe, a professor at Keio University, says that when he began teaching 25 years ago, his students were evenly divided in their view of the US-Japan security alliance. Today, he says, 90 per cent are in favour.

Even so, Japan, like America’s allies in Europe, is very worried about the isolationism, protectionism and sheer unpredictability that could flow from a possible second Trump administration. Kishida’s team knows that it can no longer rely on a bipartisan consensus underpinning US foreign policy — which makes it much more complicated to craft a message that will go down well on both sides of the aisle in Washington.

So the Japanese leader will use his speech to Congress to appeal to American interests as well as values. Kishida will argue that Japan is now a key global partner of the US in protecting the democratic world. But official Japan knows that America is unpredictable — and becoming more so. As a result, Tokyo is already doing some discreet hedging. Japan’s decision to develop its new fighter with the UK and Italy is an example of the country reaching out to other democratic, middling powers.

For the Biden administration, beset by crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, the US-Japan relationship is a rare and unambiguous bright spot in an increasingly troubled world.

Joe Biden and his team see countering Chinese power as the “pacing challenge” for US foreign policy. Historians may judge that those efforts — in which Japan plays a central role — have gone well. Whether American voters will notice or care in November is a rather different question.

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