Sunday, April 21, 2024

Kishida’s Official Visit to the U.S.

No Surprises,  No History Here

By Takuya Nishimura, Senior Fellow, Former Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
April 14, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s official visit to the United States, April 8-12, was billed as an effort to keep the U.S. engaged in the Indo-Pacific. China’s aggressive behavior in the region may seriously affect Japan’s national interests, thus justifying a closer alliance with the U.S. The trip’s success, however, will be measured by its boost to Kishida’s popularity, now at an historic low. This may be difficult.

Kishida agreed with U.S. President Joe Biden that the Japan-U.S. alliance has reached unprecedented heights. The Joint Leaders’ Statement, released after the summit meeting on April 10, declared that the “core of our global partnership is our bilateral defense and security cooperation under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which is stronger than ever.”

The definition of the Japan-U.S. alliance has been revised several times. The treaty, signed in 1960, limited the role in the Far East of U.S. Forces stationed in Japan. Article VI of the treaty provides that “[f]or the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East, the United States of America is granted the use by its land, air and naval forces of facilities and areas in Japan.”

Then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (Shinzo Abe’s grandfather) determined that the “Far East” included “approximately north of the Philippines and the area surrounding Japan, including the area controlled by the Republic of Korea and the Republic of China (Taiwan).” His declaration came at a time when Japanese politicians could not call the Japan-U.S. relationship an “alliance [domei].” It was generally referred to as an “arrangement [kyotei]” or “relationship [kankei].”

The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation in 1978 dealt with the response of U.S. Forces and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to an armed attack on Japan. The alliance was still limited to contingencies in Japan.

The Guidelines were revised twice. In 1997, both governments added responses to situations in areas surrounding Japan. The “areas surrounding Japan” was controversial; a public debate ensued on whether the term would violate Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan. Article 9 prohibits the exercise of collective self-defense. In the end, the alliance was extended from Japan to somewhere around it. At this time, Japanese officials began to refer to the alliance as an "alliance (domei)."

The second revision in 2015 extended the framework of cooperation to the world. The 2015 revisions stated that “Japan and the United States will take a leading role in cooperation with partners to provide a foundation for peace, security, stability, and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.” Kishida signed the Guidelines in his capacity as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The joint statement by Kishida and Biden, entitled “Global Partners for the Future,” can be read as an updated version of the 2015 agreement. The two leaders announced several new strategic initiatives, including upgrading the respective Japan and U.S. command and control frameworks. The upgrades will enable of the two countries to integrate their operations and capabilities and to have greater interoperability.

Another of Kishida’s initiatives is building relationships with like-minded partners in the region. AUKUS – Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. – will consider cooperation with Japan on advanced capability projects but not necessarily on the development of nuclear submarines. The joint statement refers to military exercises among the U.S., Japan and the Republic of Korea, as well as to regular U.S.-Japan-UK exercises.

The target of the updated alliance is obviously China. Kishida and Biden confirmed their commitment to the development of AI, quantum technology, semiconductors, and biotechnology, as well as to secure supply chains of crucial minerals.

The joint statement welcomed the achievements of the Kishida administration, including an increase of the defense budget to two percent of GDP by FY 2027, the development of counterstrike capabilities, and its work in establishing a Joint Operations Command in JSDF.

It has been a question why Kishida, who presents as less hawkish than former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would introduce these policies. Events after Kishida took office in 2021 support them, notably Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which generated public concern about authoritarian regimes including China and North Korea. In a poll taken by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 2023, 90.5 percent of the respondents thought that the security situation in East Asia had gotten worse in recent years.

Kishida did not forget to include in the joint statement the U.S. commitment to defend Japan under Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. In his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on the 11th, the day after the summit, Kishida observed that “Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow.”

Nine years ago, Abe also spoke about the Japan-U.S. alliance at a joint meeting of Congress (April 29, 2015, the birthday of late Emperor Hirohito). “Enemies that had fought each other so fiercely have become friends bonded in spirit,” he said, supporting the U.S. “rebalancing” for peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. “We must make the vast seas stretching from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans seas of peace and freedom, where all follow the rule of law,” said Abe.

“I detect an undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be,” said Kishida, encouraging the U.S. to continue playing its role in world affairs. Noting that freedom, democracy and the rule of law are in the Japan’s national interest, Kishida urged the U.S. to work together for these values and said that “You are not alone.”

Those might be the words Kishida said to himself in the airplane on his way home. Many in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are frustrated with Kishida’s decision not to punish himself for his role in the slush fund scandal. Public anxiety is swelling as Kishida attempts to tackle the country’s low birth rate. Consumer price inflation continues even after the Bank of Japan ended its negative interest rate policy.

Significantly, Kishida’s defense policy has not made it through debates in the Diet. In 2022, by contrast, revisions to three security documents, including one for counterstrike capabilities, were simply a decision of the Cabinet, and did not require major amendments of law.

The Abe administration faced strong opposition to his revisions to security legislation in 2015. Although Kishida has been active in reinforcing security policy, he lacks solid public support. A poll by Kyodo News, conducted after the Japan-U.S. summit, showed a small rise in the approval rate for Kishida’s Cabinet to 23.8 percent (+3.7 points), but it marked the sixth consecutive low below 30 percent. It is worth watching to see how Kishida will implement the words in his visit to the U.S.

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