No Big Deal, but Small Progress
By Takuya Nishimura, Chief Editorial Writer, The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
January 23, 2023
The headlines of newspapers covering Prime Minister Kishida’s meeting with President Biden on January 13th mainly focused on enhancement of the deterrence capability of the Japan-US alliance, but the outcome of the meeting lacked substantial deals. During the meeting, Kishida appealed for U.S. support of Japan’s security buildup. Biden had no reason to be unhappy with Japan’s positive stance on the security in East Asian region. However, the Joint Statement issued after the meeting was mainly filled with the predictable words. While the agreement leaned toward military measures against actual or potential threats, diplomatic solutions received little attention, which has caused public uneasiness in Japan. It is too early to say that bolstering the alliance has achieved broad consensus in Japan.
Both leaders celebrated the bilateral relationship noting that it had “never been closer.” Kishida told Biden that the Japanese government had renewed major security documents and would expand the security budget in coming five years. Biden praised Japan’s effort, saying “We are modernizing our military alliance.”
While the joint statement stressed that the bilateral cooperation was unprecedented, rooted in the shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a peaceful and prosperous world, there was no significant news in it. The two leaders “reaffirmed” that the alliance remains the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. Biden “reiterated” the unwavering commitment of US to the defense of Japan under Article V of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and “reaffirmed” the application of the article to the Senkaku Islands. These are reconfirmations of the agreements of former leaders of both nations.
Biden commended Japan’s security reinforcement through the new National Security Strategy and the new National Defense Strategy and Defense Buildup Program, which actually are the renewals of earlier documents. One of the selling points of the new NSS is the capability to strike enemy bases, that is described as “counterstrike” capability in the joint statement. But it does not necessarily mean preemptive attack. Kishida has been insisting that the capability to strike back against an attacker would not violate Japan’s traditional security principle of exclusively defense-oriented policy. Japan’s expansion of its security budget, which Biden called an “historic increase,” is still a matter of planning. Kishida failed to include it in last month’s budget, however.
Both leaders had the reasons for making the outcome dramatic. Kishida needs to persuade the Japanese people that the US is firmly committed to the security of East Asia, where Chinese advances have been growing as seen in the missile launch at Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Biden answered Kishida’s request by saying: “Let me be crystal clear: The United States is fully, thoroughly, completely committed to the alliance.” Biden needs to assure the US people that the Japanese are ready to make enough effort to defend themselves.
Japan’s new NSS and defense budget may be the preferable tools for his Kishida’s domestic politics. However, their political boost has not been seen. In addition, Biden's controversy involving classified documents precluded a joint press conference with Kishida. Meanwhile, there remains certain unpopularity in Japan about Kishida’s handling of important policies, including tackling infectious diseases and inflation. Some even argue that Group 7 summit meeting this May may result in an exit for Kishida administration.