Biden and Kishida’s tête-à-tête also comes during a significant shift in Japan’s role on the world stage. Last December, Kishida’s government unveiled a new national security strategy that would nearly double Japan’s outlay on defense and take steps once taboo under the strictures of the nation’s pacifist postwar constitution, including securing the capability to hit enemy ground positions with long-range missiles.
Kishida’s stance follows on the hawkish legacy of late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who sought for years to add a new muscularity to Japan’s defense posture, conditioned for decades by defeat in World War II as well as the benefit of sheltering beneath the U.S. security umbrella. It reflects Tokyo’s mounting fears over China’s military rise and expansionist proclivities, concerns that were only compounded last year by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beyond strategic worries over what China may have in store for Taiwan, Japan has long-running territorial disputes with both Beijing and Moscow.
“This was a major a decision that we had to make,” Kishida told my colleague Josh Rogin, referring to the revised national security strategy. “We have had to question whether we will be able to defend the lives, the livelihood and the industry of the Japanese people and the country.”
In Germany, the war in Ukraine prompted discussion of a “Zeitenwende” — a turning point, a hinge moment in history when the shock of the present forced leaders in Berlin to move beyond the deeply ingrained shibboleths of the past. Of course, it’s still an open debate to what extent Germany has pivoted away from its postwar pacifism and ambivalent approach toward Moscow. But some analysts contend that the Zeitenwende is about more than just Germany — indeed more than just Europe — and that the world forged in the wake of the explosion of the war in Ukraine reflects an end to idealism in the international system and a return to more hard power-based realpolitik.
“In this brave new-old world, military power will once again assert its primacy in international affairs, with economic, political and ‘soft’ power lining up as its attendants,” wrote Bloomberg Opinion columnist Andreas Kluth. “This will raise the profile of the martial — such as the U.S. — and lower that of the meek, including the mercantile and post-heroic European Union.”
Whatever the case in Europe, Japan seems to be experiencing its own Zeitenwende. “Ukraine today may be Asia tomorrow,” Kishida told Rogin, who interviewed Kishida just before he embarked on his week-long tour of the West. “Unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force are not acceptable.”
“Japan’s transition from pacifism to regional protector is not yet complete, but there is now no denying it is well underway,” wrote Zack Cooper and Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute.
Kishida’s move reflects a growing recognition that Japan needs greater deterrence capabilities in the neighborhood where it sits. “Japan is now moving toward having not only a ‘shield’ but also a ‘spear,’” said Kazuhiro Maeshima, political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, to my colleagues. “Japan is taking a step away from a defensive alliance. The Japan-U. S. alliance must not be merely an alliance maintenance, but must also be utilized as an alliance projection to prevent China from changing the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region.”
This shift is welcome in Washington. “Japan is stepping up big time and doing so in lockstep with the United States, partners in the Indo-Pacific, and in Europe,” U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “President Biden’s investment in our alliances is paying huge dividends to bolster deterrence and advance peace and security in the Indo-Pacific — and globally.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Rahm Emanuel, U.S. ambassador to Japan, said Biden and Kishida have worked to “shrink the distance between the trans-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific into a single strategic sphere,” a realignment, the U.S. envoy argued, that is “probably one of the biggest developments that the two leaders have produced.”
But it’s hardly universally popular in Japan, where domestic disquiet with Kishida’s government has grown and a majority of Japanese, according to opinion polls, oppose increased taxes to bankroll greater defense spending.
“Although most of the Japanese public wants more muscular defense capabilities, the majority disapproves of Kishida’s plan to raise taxes to do so, amid stagnant wages and rising inflation rates the country has not seen in three decades,” wrote my colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “Japan plans to hike its defense budget to the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of gross domestic product, which would make it the third-largest in the world — but the majority of Japanese disapprove his plan to raise taxes to do so, amid stagnant wages and rising inflation rates the country has not seen in three decades.”
Perhaps sensing the brewing backlash at home, the Japanese leader has contended that the new policy direction are guided by imperatives out of Tokyo’s control. “The reality is that the leader of a country cannot choose the era in which the person takes that leadership position,” Kishida told The Post.