Don’t Overlook Japan’s Diplomatic Heft
from Asia Unbound

Don’t Overlook Japan’s Diplomatic Heft

It has been a busy week in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida walk through the colonnade of the White House on their way to the Oval Office, in Washington, U.S., January 13, 2023
U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida walk through the colonnade of the White House on their way to the Oval Office, in Washington, U.S., January 13, 2023 Mandel Ngan/Reuters

It has been a busy week in Washington, DC, full of high-level meetings between U.S. and Japanese cabinet members and culminating in a summit between Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and President Joe Biden. The U.S.-Japan 2+2 meetings provided insight into the growing agenda of security cooperation following Japan’s watershed announcement last December of its increasing investment in its defenses. But this was not simply a moment for the bilateral military alliance to shine; it reflected the transformative role Japan now plays in managing global crises. 

President Biden welcomed Prime Minister Kishida to the White House for the first time, but it was certainly not their first engagement. The President’s visit to Tokyo last May offered the chance for deep consultations on both the alliance and the concerns the United States and Japan now share about the trajectory of challenge that China has taken in its Indo-Pacific relations. These Biden-Kishida consultations in Tokyo were followed immediately by a Quad Summit, for which the Prime Minister and President were joined by the leaders of Australia and India.  Since their first virtual meeting in March 2021, the Quad leaders have developed an ambitious agenda. Hosting the Quad Summit in Tokyo, Kishida readily continued the diplomatic vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiated by former prime minister Abe Shinzo. The Kishida Cabinet and Biden Administration have closely aligned their regional strategy ever since.

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But Kishida has also stepped into the global spotlight in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February. Framing Japan’s response to Russian aggression as a diplomatic defense of the international rules-based order, Kishida has determinedly kept pace with the evolving strategy of the G-7 countries of sanctioning Russia and aiding Ukraine. Japan has frozen the assets of 622 Russian individuals, including Vladimir Putin, and 53 groups.  Today, $100 million in loans and another $200 million in grants from Japan support Ukraine and its neighbors, helping to resettle refugees from the conflict. Additional assistance supports the recovery of agricultural production in Ukraine, and more recently generators and other equipment were provided to help Ukrainians cope through the winter.

Kishida’s visit to Washington, DC emphasized the headline-grabbing investment he has made in Japan’s military power, but his conversation with the president also highlighted Japan’s considerable diplomatic heft as well.  Japan will host the next G-7 meeting in Hiroshima in May, and Kishida has already begun to craft its agenda. Leaders will gather in Hiroshima, Kishida’s home district and site of atomic bombing at the end of World War II. There, he is expected to also highlight the growing nuclear risk on full display in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in an effort to jump start a new round of global activism and ensure that these weapons will not again be used in war.

Kishida’s G-7 tour began in Europe, with a visit to France. There, he and President Emmanuel Macron vowed for the G-7 to “unite in response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine, and to continue to implement strict sanctions against Russia and strong support for Ukraine.” From Paris, Kishida traveled to Rome to meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and stated that “both countries have a responsibility to lead the international community as members of the G7, which share fundamental values.” Italy will be part of a consortium building Japan’s next generation support fighter. His final European stop was in London, where alongside Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Kishida signed a new defense agreement that will allow Japanese and British forces to exercise in each other’s countries and will define the status of the visiting forces.

At home, Kishida will continue to face questions about his plan to double Japan’s security related spending to 2 percent of GDP and add long-range missiles to the Self Defense Force arsenal.  He and his party will face continued public scrutiny as local elections approach in April.  There are already hints of party rivalries emerging and speculation about Kishida’s long term political prospects. His diplomatic tour also may not assuage growing concerns about the Japanese economy as inflation reaches 4 percent. 

But what is obvious to many outside Japan is how indispensable Japanese leadership is in today’s difficult geopolitics.  Gone are the days when Japanese prime ministers could focus solely on domestic issues and leave the task of imagining the future of the world in the hands of others.  Prime Minister Kishida’s activism on the global stage makes him a very welcome visitor to Washington, DC, and a much-valued partner to many other democratic leaders who are grappling with this precarious global moment.

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