Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has completed his first visit to Washington after taking office, including a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on January 13. One thing is for sure: The Japan-U.S relationship has never been stronger.
With smiles on their faces, Kishida and Biden reaffirmed their countries would further strengthen the deterrence and response capabilities of the bilateral alliance in the face of heavy-handed military actions by China, Russia, and North Korea.
Most notably, Biden endorsed Japan’s landmark decision to acquire counterstrike capabilities, which marks a critical inflection point in Tokyo’s post-war policy of maintaining an exclusively defense-oriented policy. Biden praised Kishida as “a real leader and a true friend.” He even put his hand on the premier’s shoulder as the two walked outside the White House.
This is a world away from the Japan-U.S. relationship when I first studied in the United States in the late 1980s. Around that time, “Japan threat” arguments were prevailing in the U.S. due to the escalation of trade frictions between the two nations.
In a now-famous interview with the Washington Post in March 1990, Major General Henry C. Stackpole III, then the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Bases in Japan, even said American troops must remain in Japan because “no one wants a rearmed, resurgent Japan,” adding that “we are a cap in the bottle, if you will.”
In a recent interview with NHK, Christopher Johnstone, the former East Asia director at the National Security Council in the Biden administration, also admitted frankly that as recently as a few years ago, some in Washington had taken a dim view of Japan’s possession of counterattack capabilities.
But Johnstone, who is currently the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that air of reluctance has changed, and the United States has come to welcome Japan’s new capabilities. To explain the shift, he pointed out that Washington has greatly deepened its trust in Tokyo, and that the United States now expects Japan to play an important role in maintaining stability in East Asia amid China’s growing military activities.
In the post-World War II period, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) have served as a “shield,” engaged only in defense, while U.S. forces were envisioned as a “spear” for retaliatory attacks. As part of this division of roles between the two nations, Japan has maintained an exclusively defense-oriented security policy since the end of World War II. Thus, Japan’s decision to build up an offensive capability to attack enemy missile bases had been viewed as potentially damaging to alliance role-sharing.
Reflecting the delicacy of the issue, the late Abe Shinzo, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, only managed to lay the groundwork for a plan to acquire an enemy base strike capability, or what it is now called “counterstrike capability,” in the last full week of his second term as prime minister, which lasted nearly eight years.
Three Security Dilemmas
Kishida’s U.S. visit topped off his tour of five Group of Seven nations – he also visited France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Canada. With Japan as the current chair of the G-7 grouping, Kishida will face three major challenges in the lead-up to the Hiroshima summit in May.
The first concerns the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. As the G-7 president, Tokyo needs to continue to support Ukraine and demonstrate to the world its tougher stance toward Russia.
But Japan still maintains established interests in Russian oil and gas development projects, namely Sakhalin 1 and Sakhalin 2, and is pouring billions of yens into Russia every day. For Japan, which relies on the Middle East for approximately 90 percent of its crude oil imports, Sakhalin 1 is a valuable alternative source of supplies.
Sakhalin 2 supplies about 9 percent of Japan’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports and accounts for about 3 percent of its total power generation, making it indispensable from the perspective of Japan’s energy security. There is also the harsh reality that Hiroshima Gas Co., Ltd., located in Kishida’s home constituency, procures about half of its LNG from Sakhalin 2.
For resource-poor Japan, there is a national interest at stake that cannot be covered up by the fine words spoken by Kishida during his recent tour of five G-7 nations. Thus attention will be paid to the Japanese government’s response, including whether Kishida will visit Ukraine at the invitation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
With Japan providing only bullet-proof vests, helmets, and other defense supplies to Ukraine, its support measures are weak. According to a German think tank, Japan’s aid to Ukraine from January to November 2022 was the lowest in the G-7, worth 600 million euros in total, which is only 1.2 percent of the total U.S. assistance given to Ukraine.
The West is prepared for any pain and is proceeding with decoupling with Russia. Japan’s seriousness and readiness will thus be called into question if it doesn’t step up its actions. If the efforts of the host country itself are deemed inadequate, the unity of the G-7 will be in danger.
The second dilemma centers on nuclear weapons. Kishida has actively advocated for nuclear disarmament to realize a “world without nuclear weapons.” But with Russia and North Korea issuing direct threats to use tactical nuclear weapons and China expanding its nuclear arsenal, the reality is that Japan is becoming more dependent on the United States’ “nuclear umbrella” of deterrence than ever before.
While maintaining nuclear stability has become extremely important, how will Kishida come to terms with it? The G-7 will also want to see Kishida’s realistic security policy and consistent messaging on this issue.
Lastly, how to cope with a rising China is also a big headache for the Kishida administration. Kishida has reiterated his government will never tolerate any attempt to change the status quo by force in violation of international law, with China in mind. But with Japan’s government debt already standing at 264 percent of GDP – the highest in the world – there should be a strict limit as to how much Tokyo can add to its ballooning national deficit in an attempt to match China’s increasing military might.
Rather than relying solely on confrontation against Beijing, Japan is also required to play its own role as a neighbor of China in easing tensions for the entire region. Is it possible for Tokyo to conduct hard-nosed diplomacy that is both robust and meticulous? The diplomatic power of the Kishida administration is being questioned.
The Japan-U.S. joint statement issued on January 13 concludes by saying: “We begin 2023 together as the closest of allies and friends, newly committed to achieving peace and prosperity, not only through our words but through our actions. The times demand no less.”
Indeed, to overcome its security dilemmas, Japan will need strong actions more than beautiful words.