A Warm Welcome for Japan’s Kishida in Washington

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | East Asia | Southeast Asia

A Warm Welcome for Japan’s Kishida in Washington

Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida addressed the U.S. Congress and met the president of the Philippines. However, a tentative offer to join the AUKUS security pact presents Japan with a dilemma.

A Warm Welcome for Japan’s Kishida in Washington

From left: Mrs. Kishida Yuko, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, U.S. President Joe Biden, and First Lady Jill Biden greet the U.S. and Japanese delegations during the State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Apr. 10, 2024.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Oliver Contreras

Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has basked in an outpouring of respect and appreciation in Washington this week. He was feted by U.S. President Joe Biden at a state dinner at the White House. The event was attended by a host of celebrities, such as Robert de Niro, as well as top brass from the U.S. military, and the architects of American foreign policy in Asia.

This generated upbeat coverage on U.S. websites, with accompanying pictures of the prime minister in a tuxedo. 

It was a sharp contrast to the much gloomier press coverage Kishida receives in Japan.

In general, the media at home seems to have decided that Kishida is on his last legs, struggling to recover from a fundraising scandal that led several senior members of his government to resign.

However, in the United States, Kishida still has a chance to be seen as a hero.

“It is frankly unimaginable that any other leader than Fumio Kishida could have taken the alliance to this level,”  said one senior official from the Biden administration. “What he’s done in the U.S.-Japan context is nothing short of remarkable. He’s modernized it, and put us on a pathway to even bigger things.” 

Kishida is an enthusiastic supporter of Biden’s Asia strategy. When the leaders met this week, they used similar phrases about ensuring an open and secure Indo-Pacific and maintaining an international order based upon the rule of law.

“We are your global partner today and we will be your global partner in the years ahead,” Kishida told Congress in a speech delivered in English on April 11.  He was fulsome in his praise for American democracy. This received applause from supporters of both Joe Biden and Donald Trump, who face a rematch in November for the presidency. TV networks gave Kishida plenty of attention.

In office, Trump pressed U.S. allies to “share the burden” of their security by committing to high levels of defense speeding. Since Kishida became Japan’s prime minister, the Diet in Tokyo has agreed to double its defense budget to 2 percent of GDP. Japan is set to become the third-largest military spender in the world.

Japan has also acquired counterstrike capability, which means that its Self Defense Forces could – in theory – fire missiles at targets in North Korea or China in the face of an imminent attack. 

Kishida has often drawn a parallel between the threats to Japan’s security and the invasion of Ukraine. 

In his speech to Congress he said, “Russia’s unprovoked, unjust, and brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has entered its third year. Russia continues to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, which has contributed to worldwide concern that yet another catastrophe by nuclear weapon use is a real possibility.”

The Japanese prime minister – who is from Hiroshima – has previously used speeches to “try to pull the world back from the brink of nuclear conflict,” as he puts it. 

Inevitably, the nuclear capacity of the United States and its allies Britain and France presents Kishida with a dilemma. He must now wrestle with the question of whether Japan should become a member of AUKUS, an informal security pact involving Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States underlined by Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. 

The defense ministers of the three AUKUS countries met in Washington shortly before Kishida arrived in the U.S. capital. They discussed enhancing cooperation with Japan. However, they stopped sort of saying Japan should join the group, choosing instead to say they would “explore” the idea.

The defense ministers appear to be preparing to invite Japan to join “Pillar II” of AUKUS, which focuses on advanced technology, ranging from artificial intelligence and quantum computing to hypersonic weapons.

According to Biden, Japan and the United States will “increase the interoperability and planning of our militaries.” They will also create a joint network of air missile and defense architecture, along with Australia. 

The AUKUS arrangement is built around a commitment from the U.S. and the U.K. to provide Australia with advanced equipment for nuclear-powered submarines. 

Biden has stressed that the submarines would be “nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed.” Nevertheless, China has accused the Western allies of setting back nuclear non-proliferation efforts. A well-placed source claims this is a point that pricks at Kishida’s conscience. 

“Under current circumstances, it would not be possible for Japan to become a full member of AUKUS,” the source explained to The Diplomat. “Politicians would not tolerate a deal which draws Japan into a defense arrangement which involves nuclear-powered submarines. This would be seen as undermining the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty, of which Japan is a committed member. For example, how could Japan express disapproval of a nuclear deal between Russia and North Korea, if Tokyo has entered into a nuclear arrangement with Washington, London and Canberra?”

“Furthermore,” the source added, “such a step could be regarded as a provocative act towards China, which could increase the risk of escalation.”

The Washington meetings were also an opportunity for the Biden administration to bolster relations with another friendly Asian country: The Philippines. A trilateral summit involving Kishida, Biden, and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took place on the same day as Kishida’s speech to Congress.

From left: President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio of Japan in the Blue Room before their trilateral meeting in the East Room of the White House, Apr. 11, 2024. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.

Marcos told reporters that the nations are bound by a shared vision.

It was announced that coastguards from the United States, Japan, and the Philippines will conduct joint patrols later this year. Japan will also supply equipment to the Philippines coast guard to help it monitor the activity of Chinese ships.

Admiral John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, has said that he is “very, very concerned” about “dangerous and illegal” Chinese actions around the Sierra Madre, a rusty boat that lies on a shoal within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

According to the Financial Times, Chinese coast guard ships have used water cannons and other aggressive measures to impede the Philippines from resupplying marines stationed on the Sierra Madre. 

Manila ran the vessel aground in 1999 to bolster its claim to the contested reef and routinely sends boats to resupply the marines stationed there. China has accused the Philippines of bringing construction materials to reinforce the ship. 

Rory Green, China economist at GlobalData TS Lombard, said this issue could flare into a major flashpoint.

“It is a test of America’s commitment to the region,” he said.

During the trilateral meeting in Washington, Biden reassured the two visiting Asian leaders that America’s commitment to their nations is “ironclad” and added that an attack on Filipino ships in the South China Sea would invoke the Philippines-U.S. defense treaty. 

Aside from security issues, Green noted the potential advantages to the Philippines of closer ties to two countries that have much larger economies. 

“This strikes me as part of a plan to try to counter China’s economic heft in the region,” Green told The Diplomat. “China has done very well in providing funding and expertise as an infrastructure provider, and by offering a market to exporters from other countries. These are not areas in which America has done particularly well, although in a sense, the U.S. is fighting geography.”

Green went on: “China is by far the biggest regional economy in the Asia-Pacific, and the proximity factor definitely matters. However, bringing the economic weight of Japan onto the American side helps to address the balance. This may well appeal not just to the Philippines but to other countries in Southeast Asia which are wondering how they should position themselves in terms of U.S.-China rivalry.”

The next meeting involving Biden and Kishida is scheduled for July. It will take place on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Washington. South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol – with whom Biden and Kishida met in another historic trilateral back in August – has also been invited.