Why the U.S.-Japan Summit Matters
from Asia Program

Why the U.S.-Japan Summit Matters

U.S. President Joe Biden walks alongside Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks alongside Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Mandel Ngan/Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s Washington summit on April 11 comes at a time of deepening security cooperation as well as some challenges to economic ties.

April 5, 2024 12:55 pm (EST)

U.S. President Joe Biden walks alongside Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks alongside Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Mandel Ngan/Reuters
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What is the focus of Kishida’s state visit?

Kishida will, once again, draw U.S. attention to the dangers faced in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to his meetings with President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team, Kishida will also address a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, an important opportunity to speak to both political parties about how to work more effectively together in the Indo-Pacific and across the globe. Finally, Kishida and Biden will be joined by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for a trilateral summit to discuss the growing tensions in the South China Sea and highlight the growing strategic cooperation among Washington, Manila, and Tokyo.

What are Biden and Kishida likely to cover in their meeting?

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The leaders will focus on building regional cooperation, but coping with China motivates much of the agenda. In the Indo-Pacific, the United States and Japan are contending with Chinese ambitions, especially on the seas where China’s navy is challenging the established order. Maritime cooperation on this front has expanded considerably, not only between the United States and Japan but with other regional allies and partners, such as Australia, India, and the Philippines. 

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Tensions across the Taiwan Strait will loom large over next week’s meeting as well. Kishida and Biden will upgrade the coordination mechanisms for the U.S. and Japanese militaries in case of a crisis. Japan plans to establish a new operational command next year that will bring all three branches of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (maritime, air, and ground) into a permanent Joint Operations Command. The United States, too, is rethinking how to ensure effective combined operations with Japanese forces in case of a crisis. Kishida and Biden both recognize that the rapid changes in the regional military balance mean that the U.S.-Japan alliance could be called upon militarily in ways it has not in the past.

In his address to a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, where there is broad consensus on the China challenge but not on Ukraine, Kishida could point out that U.S. leadership—whether in the Indo-Pacific or in Europe—is indispensable in this increasingly volatile moment in world politics. China and Russia are challenging the rules-based order, and now with Pyongyang involved in supplying arms to Moscow, this alignment brings even deeper challenges for the U.S.-led alliances. Kishida will likely remind Congress of just how much more unstable his part of the world could become. 

Economic security will also be part of the U.S.-Japan conversation during the prime minister’s visit. Like the Biden administration, the Kishida cabinet also seeks to ensure stable supply chains and has invested heavily in onshore semiconductor manufacture. Meanwhile, his cabinet is reviewing Japan’s own efforts to protect its economy and seeks to strengthen cyber and other protections for its critical infrastructure. Japan continues to build critical regional infrastructure alongside the United States, Australia, and India in the Quad to bolster the economic vitality of Indo-Pacific nations, and during his visit to New Delhi in May 2023, Kishida announced his update to Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy.

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Are there major sticking points in the U.S.-Japan alliance?

Beyond the Indo-Pacific, Kishida would like to expand cooperation with the United States to maintain a rules-based, free, and open global order, especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a member of the Group of Seven (G7), Japan has sanctioned Russia and championed international assistance to Ukraine, topping more than $7 billion in aid to Ukraine and surrounding countries that host refugees from the conflict. Furthermore, at the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summits held since the invasion, Kishida has pointed out that what was happening in Europe could just as easily happen in the Indo-Pacific, making it clear that Japan saw the aggression as a global challenge.

Biden and Kishida will need to carefully manage their differences, however. The U.S. decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017 stunned many in Tokyo, and Kishida, like Prime Minister Abe Shinzo before him, hopes Washington will change its mind in the future. In the Indo-Pacific, China’s presence dominates regional trade, and the Japanese government wants to see the United States counter some of that leverage. Furthermore, as both countries seek to deepen their cooperation in future technology development, the United States and Japan, along with Europe, will need to balance and mitigate competition risks without succumbing fully to protectionism.

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As with all allied leaders, Kishida worries that in a presidential election year, the rhetoric of protectionism in the United States could be harmful to global trade. Republican candidate and former President Donald Trump has openly called for across-the-board tariffs on international trade, an approach that would be devastating, not only to Japanese companies that trade with and invest in the United States, but also to Tokyo and Washington’s interest in offsetting Chinese economic coercion in the Indo-Pacific. After initially saying his administration would review the purchase of U.S. steel by Japan’s Nippon Steel, President Biden later issued a statement that the American company would remain “domestically owned and operated.” His decision suggests that domestic politics this year could sway U.S. decision-making even as Washington seeks to draw its closest Indo-Pacific ally closer.

What are Kishida’s aims for Japan’s foreign policy?

In his three years in office, Kishida has implemented considerable strategic change even though many had seen him as an idealist rather than a realist. In 2022, he announced a new National Security Strategy and an important new ten-year defense plan that promises to double the gross domestic product (GDP) share of security spending, raising it to two percent of the country’s GDP. Diplomatically, Kishida has brought Japan squarely into the G7 effort to assist Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, motivated by the belief that aggression in Europe could also occur in the Indo-Pacific. Surprisingly, both of Kishida’s strategic goals have been largely supported by the Japanese people. 

Despite his success at strategic reform, Kishida faces political battles at home. His approval rating, like Biden’s, has fallen more often than risen. Scandals plague his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and the prime minister has struggled to persuade the public that he can change his party’s penchant for opaque factional politics. In September, the LDP will vote on its party president. Already, names of potential candidates for the post-Kishida era are circulating, suggesting that the prime minister will need to raise his standing among the Japanese public as well as within his own party if he is to remain in office. 

Presidential election years are stressful for U.S. allies, especially now given the growing differences between Democrats and Republicans over foreign policy goals. The U.S. debate over American strategic priorities has puzzled many in Japan who have relied on a strong bipartisan foundation for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Trade has always been a difficult issue to negotiate, but today, the stakes seem much higher in Tokyo as questions remain about the United States’ commitment to free trade, and whether the American people still value Japanese investment in their communities.

Both the United States and Japan could have new leaders next year. How might those challenges affect the alliance and dynamics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond?

The challenge of China’s growing footprint in the Indo-Pacific has tremendous import for Japan’s interests.  Thus, any potential change of leadership brings questions about how Washington will manage strategic competition with Beijing. Like the United States, Japan relies on China for trade and investment, and yet its proximity to an expanding Beijing military presence across the region worries Tokyo. Furthermore, a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan would inevitably involve Japan, which hosts more than fifty thousand U.S. forces, including basing for a U.S. navy carrier task force, on its soil. Consistent and coordinated strategy for the U.S.-Japan alliance is thus seen as an imperative for Tokyo. 

However, leadership change in Japan would likely not change the country’s strategic direction. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision, devised by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s government, continues to steer Japanese policy towards the region, as demonstrated by Kishida’s upgrade of this policy in March 2023. The National Security Strategy adopted by the Kishida government also will guide whoever succeeds him as prime minister, as will the commitment to raise Japanese investment in its military and expand its capabilities. But implementing this policy may prove challenging as the government will need to make serious fiscal trade-offs with other expenses to significantly increase the share of military spending. 

Less clear is how Japan’s diplomacy will fare. To be sure, its commitment to working with the United States and other G7 partners is unlikely to weaken, but Kishida’s experience as Abe’s foreign minister when Crimea fell helped him grasp immediately the consequences of Russian aggression against Ukraine. As importantly, he understood that Japan had to act in lockstep with the G7 if its voice was to be heard. Kishida is comfortable on the global stage, just as his predecessor was, but even Abe did not have to respond to war in Europe and now the Middle East. The world does not look like it will be easier for Japanese leaders to manage, and one of the biggest challenges could be Japan’s relationship with a far less predictable United States. 

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