Kishida’s Visit to the United States and the Strengthening of the Japan-U.S. Alliance


In his April 2024 visit to Washington DC, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio underscored Japan’s defense ties with the United States and its willingness to enhance them still more. An exploration of the ways Japan is making itself a more central part of the regional and global security apparatus.

Japan Declares Its Willingness to Step Up

On April 11, 2024, at a joint session of the US Congress, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio declared:

The international order that the US worked for generations to build is facing new challenges, challenges from those with values and principles very different from ours. Freedom and democracy are currently under threat around the globe. . . . I want to address those Americans who feel the loneliness and exhaustion of being the country that has upheld the international order almost singlehandedly. . . . Although the world looks to your leadership, the US should not be expected to do it all, unaided and on your own. . . . I am here to say that Japan is already standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States. You are not alone. We are with you. Japan has changed over the years. We have transformed ourselves from a reticent ally, recovering from the devastation of World War II, to a strong, committed ally, looking outward to the world.

House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republican and Democratic Party members who voted for the national security supplemental bills, as well as senators who voted for them, deserve applause from US allies and partners for doing the “right thing” and exemplifying U.S. leadership—though there may be a debate over the adequateness of geographical allocation of resources for assistance. Bipartisanship in the US Congress is rare these days, but the kind of politics we saw during this process strengthens the message that the United States is willing and able to exercise leadership on the world stage instead of pursuing restraint. It remains to be seen whether this agreement will become the beginning of a new type of domestic political agreement on US international security policy or whether this will be an exception that will become increasingly difficult to replicate in the coming months and years.

Allies and partners of the United States, as well as its adversaries, will be watching to see whether this spirit of “partial bipartisanship” for foreign engagement continues.

However, Japan will not merely be watching. It believes that US international leadership based on bipartisanship will be more sustainable when a sense of fairness regarding international burden-sharing is more widely shared among US citizens. Japan also believes that the American people would be more willing to help those who strive to manage their own security, rather than “freeriding” on US assistance. The primary objective of the Kishida visit was to send a clear message to the American people that Japan will not freeride, and is willing and able to share the burden of defending and maintaining the rules-based international order alongside the United States, thereby proving itself to be a worthy ally. The US-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement titled “Global Partners for the Future” and the accompanying fact sheet referred to more than 70 programs of cooperation to show that what Kishida said was not mere rhetoric.

So what role is Japan willing to play to defend and maintain the rules-based international order? Below I focus on Japan’s role in the area of defense and security, putting into perspective some initiatives that were announced during Kishida’s visit to Washington. (More concrete Japanese efforts on defense and security will likely be announced at the soon-to-be-held Security Consultative Committee, or “Two Plus Two,” meeting.)

High Stakes in the Indo-Pacific

Japan is opposed to unilateral changes to the status quo by force. This principle applies globally, but in the Indo-Pacific context, it applies to the territorial integrity of the Senkaku Islands and the status quo as defined by international law in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait looms very large among security policymakers and policy experts in Tokyo. Japan’s priority strategic objectives are to deter China’s use of force against Japan and also deter Chinese armed aggression against Taiwan. To that end, Japan has been substantially stepping up efforts for the sake of its own security and regional security.

For Japan’s national security, the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait is vital as implied and stated in many official statements. China’s currently preferred strategy toward Taiwan appears to be coercion not invasion, but if China were to use force to unify Taiwan, then Japan, the United States and other like-minded states would be strongly opposed because such an act would directly and gravely contravene the peaceful resolution of cross-strait relations, subsequently creating an extremely hostile environment in the western Pacific.

If a hostile China were to forcibly conquer Taiwan and enable the Peoples’ Liberation Army to have free access to the Pacific Ocean, then it would force the United States to dramatically shift its force posture in the western Pacific. Consequently, America’s ability to defend Japan and other treaty allies in the region would be significantly undermined, and as a result, Japan could be put into an enclave-like strategic situation, exposed to severe circumstances where it would be vulnerable to China’s military and economic pressure to force Japan to accept Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.

Under these severe circumstances, Japan’s freedom and political independence would be threatened, and a strong sense of fear could arise that a part of Japanese territory will be the next target of aggression. In other words, the stakes for Japan are huge. The fate of Taiwan will have grave consequences for Japan if China decides to use force to achieve its political objective of unifying the island—this should be the true meaning of the phrase “Taiwan’s contingency is Japan’s contingency.” Involuntary unification of Taiwan would create an illegitimate situation that would have lasting consequences generating extremely high tension. Thus, deterring an armed conflict will remain paramount among Japan’s national security objectives.

Strengthening Conventional Deterrence

When Russia invaded Ukraine, many Japanese were shocked by the fact that a major power led by an authoritarian leader could engage in unprovoked armed aggression against its neighbor. Now a majority of the Japanese public support the government’s policy to fundamentally bolster Japan’s defense capability. Opinion polls in 2022 and 2023 showed that more than 60% of the respondents replied that Japan should increase its defense capability.

Japan is undertaking several major efforts to strengthen conventional deterrence. Deterring China means convincing China that: (1) China cannot win a short sharp war, (2) it cannot prevail in a protracted conflict, and (3) its arms buildup will be met with multinational balancing. Japan’s lines of effort to achieve these goals are threefold: first, building up its own defense capability, second, strengthening defense cooperation with the United States, and third, advancing security cooperation with other partners. In order to make deterrence credible, Japan has embarked on a number of significant initiatives to strengthen defense cooperation with the United States. The Japan-US Summit talks in Washington confirmed that the following major efforts are underway.

First of all, Japan is bolstering its own defense capability in order to shore up US deterrence vis-à-vis China. Traditionally, Japan-US bilateral discussion on defense had centered on the defense of Japan. The notion of “the American spear and the Japanese shield” was used to describe the division of labor between the two countries, confined to the context of the defense of Japan. Japan’s new planned defense buildup over the next decade, though, is expected to enable Japan to defend its own territory not only with the shield but also with the spear—namely, counterstrike capabilities.

An enhanced Japanese capability to defend itself will enable US forces to concentrate more on the defense of Taiwan. Thus, it could be said that Japan is doubling its defense expenditure to assume larger costs and risks required for regional deterrence. In this light, US support for Japan in the area of capability development will play a key role when it comes to enhancing Japan’s stand-off defense and counter-hypersonic capabilities. Japan will acquire TLAMs, or Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, and continue cooperating with the United States on the development of the Glide Phase Interceptor program, as reconfirmed during Kishida’s visit to Washington.

Enhancing C2 Coordination

Secondly, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are increasing coordination with US forces to enhance their ability to effectively wage combined operations. Many efforts are required to enable US and JSDF personnel to conduct combined operations effectively, but among them are the critical task of command and control, or C2, coordination. To deny China from establishing a fait accompli through a short sharp war, and also to persistently conduct combined operations even if a conflict becomes protracted, it is vital to have a C2 coordination architecture between the two allies.

It was agreed in Washington that both countries will upgrade their respective C2 frameworks “to enable seamless integration of operations and capabilities and allow for greater interoperability and planning between U.S. and Japanese forces in peacetime and during contingencies.” Japan is establishing a JSDF Joint Operations Command, while the United States is planning to upgrade US Forces in Japan headquarters by giving it operational command authority. Increasing interservice jointness has been a long-sought task and simultaneously increasing operational coordination between the JSDF and US Forces will also be a dauting task. The fact that the leaders of the two countries have politically committed to this should help alleviate traditional problems that have hindered the process. The Two Plus Two Japan-US Security Consultative Committee will need to constantly monitor progress so that the momentum will not be lost.

Increasing interservice jointness has been a long-sought task. The fact that the leaders of the two countries have politically committed to this will hopefully help overcome traditional obstacles that have hindered the process. The Two Plus Two Japan-US Security Consultative Committee will need to constantly monitor progress so that the momentum will not be lost.

Expanding Capacity and Resilience

Thirdly, defense production capacity urgently needs to be boosted to bolster deterrence through resilience. Sustainability and resilience during a contingency will be key to enduring in a protracted conflict. To that end, the Japanese Ministry of Defense will cooperate with the US Department of Defense to “identify priority areas for partnering US and Japanese industry, including on co-development, co-production and co-sustainment,” as noted in the joint statement mentioned above. The urgency of the munition production capacity issue has been recognized in the bilateral announcement of the intent “to explore co-production of advanced and interoperable missiles for air defense and other purposes to further bolster the Alliance deterrence posture.”

Regional maintenance and repair capabilities also support and strengthen sustainment capacity and readiness. Japan and the United States are reviewing opportunities of maintenance and repair of forward-deployed US Navy ships at Japanese commercial shipyards, and examining the possibility of maintenance and repair on engines of Japan-based US Air Force aircraft. As these initiatives begin to deliver results, they will send a signal that Japan and the United States are able to endure in a protracted conflict. Information and cyber security will be prerequisites to protecting this critical infrastructure.

Advancing Regional Security Networking

Fourthly, Japan will promote minilateral cooperation with regional states. The Japan-US-Australia framework is planned to advance intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance; operational coordination and cooperation regarding unmanned aerial systems, collaborative combat aircraft, and their autonomy; networked air defense architecture and enhanced missile defense information sharing; and other defense cooperation efforts. The Japan-US-Philippines framework is addressing maritime security issues by advancing coast guard capacity-building, maritime domain awareness, and combined naval training and exercises. The Japan-US-ROK framework has initiated an annual multidomain exercise, as well as the real-time sharing of North Korean missile warning data, to demonstrate the three countries’ ability to deter and respond to nuclear and missile threats more effectively.

As Jeffrey Hornung has pointed out, the hub of the hub-and-spoke security architecture in the Pacific is no longer solely the United States—it is becoming the Japan-US alliance. The “Japan-US Plus” approach to multifaceted defense and security cooperation with other American treaty allies serves to advance multinational balancing. Japan is also cooperating with Britain and Italy on the next-generation fighter program known as the Global Combat Air Programme. Capability development is one area where US treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific could benefit greatly not only through mutual cooperation, but also by involving extraregional countries such as Britain.

It was revealed that Australia, Britain, and the United States are considering cooperation with Japan on AUKUS Pillar II advanced capability projects. There may be problems such as information security related to Japan’s participation in these projects, but those obstacles need to be dealt with and overcome. Merely complaining and making technocratic arguments about why it is difficult for Japan to collaborate on Pillar II is unproductive and unconstructive. Japan’s sound choice is to pursue advanced defense capabilities with AUKUS through cooperative engagements to enhance interoperability of advanced hardware and software that will come online in the near future, while at the same time reducing risks associated with investment in research and development of advanced technologies with high potential for military application.

Japan as a Regional Security Provider

The above are only selected examples of bilateral and minilateral defense cooperation to defend the rules-based free and open order in the Indo-Pacific. Japan is clearly trying to change from a “security consumer” to a “security provider” by investing in its own defense, as well as in defense cooperation with the United States and other regional players. However, one needs to be mindful that there are serious shortfalls, such as those in the area of cyber defense—something critical to Japanese national defense. The level of critical infrastructure protection and resilience remains inadequate and continues to be a major liability in Japanese national security.

Japan is moving to fulfill its commitment to increase its defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2027, and it is advancing national security programs, but the efficacy of all programs must be assessed in temporal terms as well. In other words, whether existing Japanese and US efforts are sufficient in light of opponents’ capabilities at different points in time needs to be assessed on a continuous basis. Multinational net assessments – including those encompassing China, the United States, Japan, and Taiwan; on the conventional balance (including, among others, Chinese offensive capabilities and Allied denial capabilities; on the capacity and resilience balance (comparisons of respective capacities to persist in a protracted conflict); and the endurance balance (comparisons of national capacities to continuously advance peacetime military buildups)— should be carried out in order to identify exploitable asymmetries.

A comparison of conventional balances in the European and Indo-Pacific theaters should be conducted in order to illuminate serious gaps so as to provide a common basis of understanding for assessing which regional states should provide what kind of capabilities to redress them, how the United States should allocate resources between the two major theaters, and how much risk America and its allies should assume in making those decisions. The European assessment will be particularly difficult, as it will have to address NATO deterrence as well as military assistance to Ukraine. Nevertheless, this kind of theater-based net assessment needs to be urgently undertaken to allow for the devising of viable coalition strategies for regional deterrence.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio take part in an official arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC on April 10, 2024. © AFP/Jiji.)

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