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Kishida’s Visit to the United States Symbolic of a New Era of US-Japan Ties

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President Biden hosted Prime Minister Kishida for a state visit to the United States earlier this month. Consisting of a speech to Congress, a US-Japan-Philippines Trilateral Summit, and a trip to North Carolina, the eventful week reaffirmed the strength of the US-Japan alliance.

US President Joseph Biden and Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Fumio Kishida reaffirmed the strength of the US-Japan alliance during Kishida’s state visit in early April this year. The first state visit by a Japanese leader in 9 years, the allies reinforced their defense and economic ties.

US-Japan Relations: From WW2 to Today

US-Japan relations entered a new era post-WW2, defined by the 1951 US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. Article 9 of the treaty forbade “(Japan) from using force to settle international disputes and from possessing the tools to wage war” and outlined how Japan would allow US forces to remain on Japanese soil. In 1960, the treaty was revised and granted the United States the right to establish bases in Japan in exchange for a commitment to defend Japan in the event of an attack.

As the US-Japan alliance crystalized itself post-WW2, the relationship today has robust military and economic ties. Japan has the most US bases and troops in the world. Japan invests more in the United States than any other country. The US-Japan alliance has large public support in both countries, with 73% of Japanese and 69% of Americans supporting the alliance.

Prime Minister Kishida’s national security and foreign policy outlook are inspired by late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe envisioned a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” in 2016, aiming to establish a rules-based international order on the principles of free trade, freedom of navigation, and the rule of law. In anticipation of a rising China, the FOIP advocates for establishing regulatory frameworks to foster free and fair economic areas, enhancing economic and infrastructural connectivity over the Indian and Pacific Oceans, building capacity for improved governance, and creating maritime security and law enforcement resources. In his efforts to advocate for a FOIP, Abe was also integral in the founding (2004) and revival (2017) of the Quad – a security dialogue between Japan, the United States, Australia, and India – ultimately earning the nickname of the “QuadFather.” Today, the FOIP is a cornerstone of Kishida’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

In 2017, Abe declared that Japan would “no longer apply the one-percent spending ceiling,” departing from its 1958 self-imposed defense spending restriction. Abandoning the ceiling, Abe created a Cabinet-level National Security Council and streamlined military procurement by forming the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency. During his administration, the defense budget grew to 5.9 trillion yen ($54.1 billion). Today, Kishida has increased the defense budget to new highs; the FY2027 defense budget is targeted to be 8.9 trillion yen ($66 billion).

Kishida: “Historic Turning Point”

The PM’s visit comes at a time when Japan is positioning itself during a “historic turning point,” as stated by Kishida himself during a CNN interview. This “historic turning point” coincides with “Russia’s Ukraine aggression (and) the continuing situation over the Middle East.” Indo-Pacific leaders are grappling with the possibility of escalating conflict as China, as well as North Korea, present ever-growing threats to the region's peace through their development of “ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.” The changing nature of war also presents itself as a driver of this “historic turning point,” as countries develop new military technologies “beyond the traditional ground, maritime, and air domains to include cyberspace, outer space, and even the cognitive domain.” Consequently, Kishida emphasized international cooperation on security as necessary to improve deterrence, foreshadowing the priorities to be discussed during his state visit.

In the context of the changing world order and Abe’s legacy of increased defense spending, Japan has been adjusting its approach to national security. In December 2022, Japan announced its new National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Plan, which aims to bolster readiness, expand the capabilities of the Self-Defense Force (SDF), and develop counterstrike capabilities. The new National Security Strategy refers to China as “an unprecedented and (the) greatest strategic challenge.” The Defense Buildup Plan for FY2023-2027 aims to spend 43 trillion yen (approximately $321 billion) on defense spending, meaning that “Japan’s defense budget in FY2027 will be 65% higher than that of FY2022’s 5.4 trillion yen (about $40 billion).” With this, analysts have evaluated that describing Japan’s national security as pacifism would now be a “misleading and incorrect characterization.”

While Japan adjusts to this “historic turning point”, the United States also dwells on its relationships with Indo-Pacific countries. During an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies a day before Kishida’s visit, the US Ambassador to Japan conceptualized transforming Indo-Pacific relationships from a “hub and spokes” system to a “latticework” system. This means that US-Indo-Pacific relationships will transition from bilateral “system(s) of discrete, exclusive alliances,” to a network of relationships where alliances intersect into a multilateral matrix of mutual understanding.

The Visit

Day 1: Press Conference and State Dinner

Kishida was greeted in the nation’s capital with the White House Arrival Ceremony on April 10th, where he and Biden held a press conference. Brimming with optimism, Biden stated that “this is the most significant upgrade of our alliance since … it was first established,” proceeding to emphasize that Japan is the top foreign investor in the United States, and vice versa. Kishida underscored the urgency of bolstering deterrence through increasing interoperability between the SDF and US forces and also spoke about maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait. The PM further expressed a need for “immediate resolution of the abduction issue,” referring to the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea during the 1970s – 80s. On a brighter note, Biden spoke about the ability of the US-Japan alliance to “stretch up to the moon,” referring to a new bilateral space agreement that will bring the first non-American, through a future NASA Artemis mission, to ever walk on the moon.

The influence of Japanese soft power and culture was also on display. On the same day, in an act of “landscape diplomacy,” Japan announced that they would be donating 250 cherry blossom trees to DC to replace the 100 trees that will be removed for reconstruction of the tidal basin. Yuko Kishida, wife of Prime Minister Kishida and US first lady Jill Biden met with high school students at the White House Library and introduced them to haiku, a Japanese style of poetry.

A lavish dinner at the White House closed Kishida’s first day in DC. Among those present were prominent business leaders and notable politicians, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Microsoft president Brad Smith, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Robert De Niro, and Olympic champion figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

Day 2: Speech to Congress and US-Japan-Philippines Trilateral Summit

On April 11th, Kishida addressed Congress to underline the strength of the bilateral relationship. This was the first time a Japanese prime minister addressed Congress since Abe did in 2015, and Kishida was welcomed by bipartisan applause. Mirroring his narrative from the previous day’s press conference, the Prime Minister stated that “Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow.” Calling out China’s actions in disrupting the “stability of the international community at large,” he questioned, "without the presence of the United States, how long before the Indo-Pacific would face even harsher realities?”

Kishida’s characterization of the US attitude toward global leadership was unexpected: “I detect an undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be.” He elaborated that while some Americans may “feel the loneliness and exhaustion of being the country that has upheld the international order almost singlehandedly,” the United States “should not be expected to do it all.”

On the same day, the inaugural US-Japan-Philippines Trilateral Summit between the two leaders and Filipino President Bongbong Marcos took place, where Biden emphasized the “ironclad” defense commitment the United States has to Japan and the Philippines. He stated that “any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defense treaty.” The United States and the two Major Non-NATO allies discussed collaborating on technology, semiconductors supply chains, clean energy as well as deepening maritime and security ties. Additionally, the leaders announced the launch of an economic corridor in the Philippines, part of the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.

Ten days after the trilateral meeting, the Philippines and the United States kicked off the annual Exercise Balikatan, a military drill that would run from April 22nd to May 10th. With 16,700 US and Filipino troops taking part, the exercise is observed by Japan and 14 other countries. This is their “most expansive” iteration and “first-ever military exercise(s) outside the south-east Asian country’s territorial waters.” The exercise will simulate “retaking enemy-occupied islands in areas facing Taiwan and the South China Sea.”

Day 3: North Carolina

As Biden alluded to during the press conference, US-Japan ties are rooted in mutual trade and investments. Trade and investment from Japan have created almost 1 million jobs across the United States; the United States is the top destination for Japanese investment and the largest investor in Japan.

Amongst the states facilitating such trade ties is North Carolina. North Carolina exports $2 billion to Japan annually, and Japan is the largest source of foreign direct investment in the state. North Carolina was the first US location of a Toyota battery plant, and Toyota’s recent $8 billion investment in a battery production facility in North Carolina paved the way for Kishida’s visit to the state. During the visit, Kishida toured the Toyota electric battery manufacturing site and HondaJet’s facility in Greensboro. On the same day, Governor Roy Cooper welcomed the PM for a luncheon in Raleigh.

During Kishida’s visit, however, Nippon Steel’s acquisition of US Steel lurked in the background as a contentious issue. Nippon Steel’s $14.9 billion acquisition of the 123-year-old iconic US Steel has been a point of tension in the bilateral relationship, as the United Steelworkers Union poses doubts about Nippon Steel’s commitment to maintaining US Steel’s contract with the union. While Biden has opposed the deal and pledged for US Steel to remain a “totally American Company”, the acquisition went through a national security review and is to proceed as normal. Ambassador Emanuel stated, “the US-Japan relationship with Japan is a lot deeper and stronger … than a single commercial deal.” Implying that the issue has been overstated in the face of other areas of collaboration, he jokingly stated, “you gotta chill.”

The Future of the Alliance

While Biden has touted that the US-Japan alliance is “stronger than it’s ever been,” the US presidential election in November and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election in September pose the question of whether the two leaders will still be in power in the coming years. With Kishida’s LDP beset by a political funds scandal driven by financial misreporting, the approval rate for Kishida’s cabinet, as of April 11th, is at a “fresh low of 16.6%.” In Japan, anxiety about the possibility of the election of Trump manifests in the Japanese term “moshi-tora,” which translates into “What if Donald Trump wins?” With this, leaders have spoken about the importance of the durability of the progress made during the visit.

Despite the uncertainty of the future, Kishida’s visit to the United States was an opportunity for Japan and the United States to reaffirm their alliance while deepening defense, technology, and economic ties.

Lei Nishiuwatoko is a Spring 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She graduated from Northeastern University, where she obtained a B.A. in International Affairs. Lei has previously interned at the NATO Defense College, WorldBoston, and L.E.K. Consulting.