Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio visits Washington, D.C. this week. His summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on January 13 will cap a long week of meetings between U.S. and Japanese officials, including a Commerce-METI meeting on trade and a “2+2” meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa and Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu.
The intense diplomacy comes at a time when American views of Japan have never been better. In the 2022 Chicago Council Survey, Americans rated Japan among their most favored nations, and American support for U.S. bases in the country hit a 20-year high. Similarly, surveys conducted by the Japan Institute for International Affairs find that Japanese view the alliance positively, are confident in U.S. power, and support a leadership role for the United States in the region and around the world.
The United States and Japan are also increasingly aligned on policy. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is full of phrases and ideas imported from Japan, with none more central than the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” With similar conceptual underpinnings, Tokyo and Washington find themselves in sync on the major security challenges facing both countries, particularly the growing power and influence of China.
That alignment extends to the public as well. Joint polling from Yomiuri Shimbun and Gallup finds that majorities of Japanese (81 percent) and Americans (77 percent) view China as a military threat to their countries, and similarly-sized majorities in both countries say the same about Russia and North Korea.
But major issues remain on the table for Biden and Kishida to discuss – and for them to communicate to the American and Japanese people. Foremost among them are issues of national security and defense.
Kishida’s visit to Washington comes on the heels of Japan’s release of three key security documents: a new National Security Strategy, Japan’s first since 2013; a new National Defense Strategy, and a new Defense Buildup Program. The three documents received a warm welcome from the United States as a “foundational new step in modernizing our Alliance.” A stronger, more capable Japan is essential for Japan’s own security, and it’s just as important for the United States’ strategy in Asia.
Those documents include a significant increase in defense spending and expanded capabilities. Motivated at least in part by Russia’s shocking invasion of Ukraine, the Japanese public has embraced higher levels of defense spending and a stronger Self-Defense Forces, along with the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities the country had previously abjured. Such self-strengthening is popular on both sides of the Pacific: According to Gallup-Yomiuri polling conducted in November 2022, similar majorities of both Japanese (68 percent) and Americans (65 percent) support Japan strengthening its defense capabilities.
But it’s one thing to commit to a stronger military and another thing to use it. Japan has for decades relied first and foremost on the United States for defense, and its Self-Defense Forces have famously not fired a shot in combat since their creation. Joint CCGA-JIIA polling in 2021 found that the Japanese public opposed the SDF engaging in actions that would entail even the slightest bit of risk on behalf of its U.S. ally. Only 27 percent supported the SDF providing U.S. forces with weapons and ammunition outside of the battlefield, and a mere 15 percent supported the SDF fighting alongside U.S. forces. That’s not a sustainable posture for an alliance facing serious security concerns.
One of those security concerns, and a key reason for Japan’s greater investment in its defense, is the looming prospect of a war over Taiwan, a subject that has drawn increasing concern in both Washington and Tokyo. As various wargames of a Taiwan crisis have highlighted, U.S. forces operating out of Japan would be critical to the defense of Taiwan – and would likely result in strikes against Japan itself. If the two nations do indeed plan to jointly defend Taiwan, Biden and Kishida will also have to prepare their publics. Nikkei polling in August of last year showed that most Japanese feared being drawn into a conflict between China and Taiwan. And while Gallup-Yomiuri polling in November found that Japanese want the United States to commit military forces to defend Taiwan, Americans are more hesitant to commit U.S. forces to a conflict with China.
Kishida will also be seeking some level of reassurance about the long-term stability of the Japan-U.S. alliance and Washington’s commitment to the region. The Trump administration’s hard press on trade and host-nation support was a shock to Tokyo, as it was to other allied capitals. From Japan’s perspective, the United States is becoming a potentially less-reliable ally just at a time when the alliance is more critical to Japan’s security than at any time since the Cold War. Indeed, Gallup-Yomiuri polling shows that Japanese are divided on whether or not they trust the United States (45 percent do; 47 percent don’t), while Americans are far more trusting of Japan (70 percent). These concerns are an additional factor in Japan’s move to a greater level of independent defense capacity and a diversification of Japan’s defense relationships.
Given the stakes a conflict would entail for both Americans and Japanese, both Biden and Kishida will have plenty of homework once the week wraps up. Plans by the United States to distribute the U.S. Marine Corps footprint in Japan across a range of islands in Marine Littoral Regiments could reduce the burden on Okinawa residents – but also runs the risk of local backlash in other islands if the public isn’t brought onboard. And in the United States, the administration and Congress alike will need to convince the American public that Asia, not Europe, is the most important region for U.S. security.
While Japan’s recent moves to strengthen its defense posture have been met with strong support among both the American and Japanese publics, that doesn’t mean the work is done. Instead, it’s just begun.