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Japan’s Kishida to address Congress as its military role expands

US-Japan relationship shifts since Shinzo Abe addressed Congress in 2015

President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meet in the Oval Office Wednesday as Washington rolls out the red carpet for the Japanese leader.
President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meet in the Oval Office Wednesday as Washington rolls out the red carpet for the Japanese leader. (Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, along with the White House’s red-carpet welcome for a state visit, is expected to underline how much the ground has shifted to bring the two nations closer together in a way that few thought possible when a previous Japanese leader gave his own historic address to Congress nearly a decade ago.

The climate surrounding Kishida’s speech is remarkably different owing to successive governments moving Japan away from self-imposed pacifist policies that restricted its military capabilities and its ability to be a true mutual defense partner of the U.S.; a worsening pattern of coercive and belligerent actions by China and Russia; and the Biden administration’s efforts to build and strengthen what officials call a “latticework” of Indo-Pacific defense alliances and coalitions.

By contrast, the focus when Prime Minster Shinzo Abe addressed Congress in spring 2015 — a first for a Japanese leader — was backward facing, to World War II, and concerned questions of whether he would apologize for Japanese wartime conduct and whether Tokyo had taken adequate steps to compensate Korean victims of human rights crimes.

The U.S.-Japan alliance has evolved in the past decade from what was “largely a regional alliance” to what is now “a global partnership” that has become “if not our most important global alliance, then among the most important,” said a senior Biden administration official in a background call with reporters Tuesday.

“For decades, Japan was quite simply a platform for U.S. operations in the region. And the priority of cooperating with Japan itself as a military partner was much lower on the list for the United States. That has changed,” Christopher Johnstone, Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a press call last week to preview the Kishida visit.

Kishida, who has led Japan since 2021 and had been foreign minister in the Abe government, will be the fifth foreign leader to make a state or official visit during the Biden presidency. These highly symbolic but consequential visits have heavily focused on Indo-Pacific countries. Other leaders of the four-nation Quad security grouping, including India and Australia, have also made state visits.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, another key Asian ally, addressed Congress in a joint meeting a year ago during his state visit to Washington.

“This is the crowning partnership of the Quad,” the administration official said about Japan. “This suggests how the president views the Quad, how important it is, how central it has been to his vision of a deeper Indo-Pacific engagement. And at the heart of that … is Japan. Everything that we’re doing of purpose on the global stage, we’re doing with Japan.”

Tokyo moves away from pacifist policy

Beginning under Abe and picking up speed over the past decade, Tokyo has steadily moved away from its postwar pacifist defense policies. It agreed this year to purchase hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles and in late 2023 ended restrictions on the export of lethal weapons that are foreign-designed and Japanese-made. Tokyo has increased defense spending by 50 percent in the past two years, putting it on track to reach 2 percent of GDP in 2027, a level that would give it the third-largest military budget globally after the U.S. and China.

Those changes, as well as a list of over 70 “deliverables” that will be announced over the course of the Kishida visit, have combined to permanently alter the nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the Biden administration says.

“This is probably the largest set of substantial, significant deliverables that we’ve seen of its kind,” the official said.

The deliverables include an agreement to modernize the two countries’ handling of command-and-control operations between U.S. forces deployed to Japan and the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Japan hosts around 56,000 active-duty U.S. troops, more than any other country. 

There are also agreements related to building an integrated missile defense network between Australia, the United States and Japan.

Additionally, Japan will become the first outside nation invited to explore potential collaboration in joint technology development efforts under the trilateral security arrangement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., as was announced earlier this week.

“The AUKUS partners are excited to begin their consultations with Japan towards possible inclusion in Pillar II,” a second administration official said on the call, referring to next-generation military technologies like artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons that the trilateral arrangement hopes to cooperatively develop, produce and use.

It is not yet clear what, if any, Pillar II military technologies Japan would be involved in as part of AUKUS.

“It will take a portion of the 2024 calendar year before … the AUKUS Pillar II vision is fully fleshed out, that is with us being able to assign specific partners to specific Pillar II projects,” the second official said. “Japan brings a great deal to the table. That’s why we are announcing that AUKUS partners want to begin consultations with Tokyo as soon as possible.”

AUKUS has broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers pressured the Biden administration last year to relax regulations that slowed down the ability of British and Australian defense companies to collaborate with the Pentagon and the U.S. defense industry on developing new military technologies under Pillar II. Lawmakers are expected to be similarly eager to see U.S. regulations tweaked to allow Japan to participate in Pillar II.

And with Tokyo easing restrictions on the export of Japanese-made weapons, Biden and Kishida are set to announce the formation of a joint military-industrial council that would evaluate areas where Japan can manufacture and sell weapons abroad at a time when U.S. domestic manufacturing capacity has been severely strained by multiple wars.

“Japan’s industrial capacity and strength that had always been on the sidelines will come to bear on one of the weak points right now that we have, which is, we don’t have really the bandwidth on the defense production capacity that we need for our strategic applications,” said a third administration official.

The Biden administration’s desire to focus on defense manufacturing interdependence with Japan muddies the national security arguments of some congressional critics who don’t want to see Japan’s Nippon Steel Corp. acquire Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp.

Those critics, who include Democratic and Republican senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania, fear the Nippon-U.S. Steel deal could damage the U.S. defense industrial base if it eventually leads to the shuttering of domestic steel plants.

It’s unclear whether the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the Treasury-led panel that reviews the national security implications of proposed foreign purchases of U.S. companies, has scrutinized the steel deal. CFIUS doesn’t disclose what proposed foreign investment deals it is reviewing, but President Joe Biden said in a statement last month that it was “vital” that U.S. Steel “remain an American steel company that is domestically owned and operated.”

Administration officials on Tuesday said Biden wouldn’t raise the U.S. Steel issue with Kishida and emphasized they see the bilateral relationship as much bigger and more durable than whatever happens with the steel deal.

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