A Japan That Can Speak Its Mind
On What Kishida Said in Washington
Fifteen months into his premiership, Kishida Fumio finally made it to Washington for a meeting at the White House with Joe Biden on Friday, 13 January. Kishida's visit to the US was part of a week-long trip that also took him to Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada as Japan assumes the presidency of the G7 for the first time since 2016.
Kishida's meeting with Biden was fairly low key, with no official dinner or working lunch. (Kishida did have breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris, however.) The lack of fanfare reflects the extent to which the leaders' meeting was perhaps important for Kishida – who is looking to reset his faltering premiership through a display of international leadership – than for the US-Japan alliance as a whole. The joint statement that resulted from their meeting provides a good snapshot of the alliance’s increasingly lengthy to-do list, but is not as momentous a document as the joint statement produced by the April 2021 summit between Biden and former prime minister Suga Yoshihide, which condemned China explicitly and extensively and openly mobilized the alliance for competition with China.
As a practical matter, the meeting of the bilateral Security Consultative Committee (aka the 2+2 meeting of foreign and defense ministers on Wednesday, 11 January) probably delivered more substance, acknowledging the “unprecedented alignment of their vision, priorities, and goals” following the release of new National Security and National Defense strategies by both governments in 2022. While the Japanese government still has a tremendous amount of work to do following the release of its three national security documents in December – not just raising defense spending but figuring out how best to spend it and how to fund it – the 2+2 joint statement affirms that Japan is prepared to play a new role in regional security and within the US-Japan alliance. The old division of labor – US as spear, Japan as shield – is increasingly a thing in the past, and the two allies are now figuring out a new mix of roles and missions, working together to strengthen deterrence in East Asia.
But the most important document from Kishida’s brief visit to Washington may be the address the prime minister delivered at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins after his meeting with Biden. While he opened with what has now become a common phrase for him – “the international community is at a historic turning point,” similar to his “We stand at a historic watershed moment” at the United Nations in September– and then reiterated his government’s major national security decisions in 2022, what set this address apart was as an attempt to think about what comes next.
Kishida is still working within the broad framework of an Abe doctrine that views ties with the United States and other democracies as the central pillar of Japanese foreign policy; supporting the ambitions of developing countries, most importantly in Southeast Asia (here expanded to the “Global South” more broadly); and an approach to China that emphasizes dialogue from a position of strength. But even if this address does not rise to the level of a “Kishida Doctrine” there is a sense in this address that Kishida cannot just follow a blueprint that he inherited. He has continuously adjusted in response to changing global conditions, abandoning years of outreach to Russia and dramatically ramping up Japan’s engagement with the European Union after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, patiently working towards a better relationship with South Korea, or forging ahead with the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities after years of consideration.Kishida has also been increasingly explicit that the need for constructive engagement with China will not prevent Japan from looking clearly at China’s behavior. “We will firmly maintain and assert our position and strongly call for China’s responsible actions, while at the same time continuing dialogue including on issues of concern and cooperating on matters of common interests,” he said at Johns Hopkins.
But he also showed that he is prepared to speak bluntly to the United States. Although he praised deepening economic and technological cooperation between Japan and the United States and welcomed the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), immediately after remarking on IPEF he said the following:
Nonetheless, I must say that the core of what creates an economic order in the region is a framework with market access for goods and services. In the Asia-Pacific region, we indeed have such a framework, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP was originally initiated by the United States, and then was eventually launched without U.S. participation. Now, the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan, and others have expressed their intention to join this agreement. Against the backdrop, let me state that the United States’ return is of paramount importance. I look forward to working with my American friends and partners on what we can do together to forge a fair economic order in this region so that every one of us can enjoy prosperity.
While Japan’s leaders have privately urged the US to return to TPP at every opportunity since Trump administration announced US withdrawal in January 2017, this is a strikingly open critique of the shortcomings of IPEF and US economic policy in Asia more broadly. (After all, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has repeatedly said that the absence of market access provisions from IPEF is “a feature, not a bug.) While this is nothing that Japanese officials have not communicated privately, it is notable to see Japan’s prime minister raise this publicly in a keynote address on his first visit to Washington.
Reading these words, I cannot but wonder whether a Japan that is increasingly serious about its defense will also be a Japan that is willing to speak its mind publicly even to the United States — a more equal alliance at last. Not a Japan that can say no, but a Japan that is taking its responsibilities for global leadership seriously and that expects the same of its peers in the developed world, including the United States.
Under Abe, the central principle of Japan’s foreign policy was that there was no realistic alternative for Japan’s security than working to keep the United States engaged politically, militarily, and economically in Asia, even as it was prepared to articulate its own policies where the US was absent or inattentive.But perhaps now Tokyo is less willing to be patient with the US or other G7 partners.
Kishida has his domestic challenges and a lot of work to do to translate the three national security documents into reality, but in Washington Kishida showed that Japan’s leadership is thinking hard about the historical moment – perhaps with greater clarity than any of its peers – and will continue to build on Abe’s efforts to enhance global leadership.
Whether any of this helps Kishida at home is a subject for another post.
Zack Cooper and Eric Sayers have a solid overview of the 2+2 statement at War on the Rocks.
Seriously, this notion of a critical historical juncture has been a persistent theme for Kishida for a while. See this post on Kishida’s economic policies last year:
Dan Sneider’s account of Kishida’s trip should be read in its entirety for its account of the impact of the war in Ukraine on the Kishida government’s national strategy, but this line stood out for me:
A former senior Japanese foreign ministry official compares the impact of the Ukraine war to the coming of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships, the catalytic event that compelled Japan to open up to the world.
Michael Green’s Line of Advantage, which I have written a review of that will be published this year, is particularly good on showing how this logic drove Abe’s policies towards the United States.