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Why Japan's Kishida wants stronger military ties with the US

Martin Fritz in Tokyo
January 13, 2023

Japan's prime minister is visiting the US to discuss security ties after Tokyo recently unveiled a massive multibillion-dollar military buildup, including "counterstrike" capabilities aimed at deterring China.

An aerial view shows Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF)'s destroyer JS Asahi (DD-119) leading the fleet during the International Fleet Review to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the JMSDF, at Sagami Bay, off Yokosuka, south of Tokyo
Japan plans to hike defense spending to about 2% of gross domestic product over the next five yearsImage: Kyodo/REUTERS

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is meeting US President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday, just weeks after Tokyo revised its defense strategy to break from its postwar restraint to take on more offensive roles with an eye toward China

The US and Japan are currently strengthening their military, economic and technological cooperation in response to changes in the geopolitical and security environment in Asia brought on by the rise of China as a military power.

Last week, Kishida described the US visit, his first to the country as premier, as "very significant."

"We will show to the rest of the world an even stronger Japan-US alliance, which is a linchpin of Japanese security and diplomacy," Kishida said. "We will also show our further cooperation toward achieving a 'free and open Indo-Pacific.'"

A statement released by the White House last week said Biden and Kishida would discuss expanding cooperation on a range of regional and global issues, from climate change and critical technologies to North Korea's weapons program, the war in Ukraine, as well as stability in the Taiwan Strait.

China poses the 'greatest challenge'

Japan's defense and security policies will be high on the agenda when both leaders sit for talks on Friday.

Kishida's administration recently unveiled a massive $320-billion (€295-billion) military buildup over the next five years that would arm it with missiles capable of striking China and ready it for a sustained conflict amid growing regional tensions.

Tokyo said it would also stockpile spare parts and other munitions, reinforce logistics, develop cyberwarfare capabilities and cooperate more closely with the United States and other like-minded nations to deter threats.

"The strategic challenge posed by China is the biggest Japan has ever faced," it said in the national security paper released last month.

Japan, South Korea put new focus on militaries

Kishida's plan will also hike defense spending to about 2% of gross domestic product over the next five years and increase the Defense Ministry's share to around a tenth of all public spending. It will make Japan the world's third-biggest military spender after the United States and China, based on current budgets.

"Until now, Japan has played the shield, i.e., taken on the defensive part, and the US has been the sword, responsible for offensive capabilities," said Alexandra Sakaki, a Japan expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs think tank.

"This division of responsibilities loses clarity if Japan now acquires offensive capabilities, so you have to define how to deal with this new division of roles," she said.

Japan moves away from 'pacifism'

The strategic changes are the latest and biggest step in Japan's yearslong drive to move away from the constraints imposed by its pacifist constitution and turn itself into a stronger military power.

Kishida's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated last July, saw the move as a way to make the country a "normal" power. Kishida served as Abe's foreign minister for more than four years and helped to implement that policy.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific region seem to have even convinced many Japanese voters of the need for a rapid arming of the Japan's military, a once unthinkable prospect. Some recent surveys show over half of Japanese supporting some form of military buildup.

The US has long wanted Japan to turn away from the traditional pacifism of the postwar era and play a bigger military role.

Washington sees a stronger and more capable Japan as necessary to counter China's growing clout in the region and push back against Beijing's expansionist moves in the South and East China Seas, as well as in the Taiwan Strait.

"Given the current situation, during the meeting with Kishida, President Biden will declare his support for Japan's new defense goals, especially its counterstrike capability that requires US cooperation in development and implementation," said Sebastian Maslow, lecturer in international relations at Sendai Shirayuri Women's College in Japan.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US President Joe Biden (R) during a meeting at ASEAN in Phnom Penh
Japan's defense and security policies will be high on the agenda when both leaders sit for talks on FridayImage: Japanese PM Press Office/UPI Photo/Newscom/picture alliance

Boosting cooperation across the board

A ministerial meeting last week involving the defense and foreign ministers of both countries laid the groundwork for the summit between Kishida and Biden.

The ministers agreed to strengthen the military partnership and bolster the presence of US troops in Japan to better respond to potential security threats.

They also reportedly decided to station an upgraded unit of US Marines in Okinawa with advanced intelligence and surveillance capabilities. The two sides also agreed to expand their security alliance into space to safeguard satellites essential to military surveillance activities.

On Friday, Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas are set to sign a cybersecurity pact to ensure same security standards are applied to software used by both countries' official agencies.

It comes after Nishimura and US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo agreed on Thursday to expand cooperation on "critical" technologies, such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

Both Japan and the US also agreed to explore cooperation opportunities in the development of next-generation nuclear power plants.

This article was originally written in German.

Correction, January 13, 2023: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. DW apologizes for the error.