Japanese prime minister’s visit spotlights Biden’s foreign policy strategy
As President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met privately in Tokyo last year, Biden delivered a message that was as strategic as it was genuine.
U.S. support for a more assertive defense and security posture from Japan was understood, but Biden made it clear that if there was anything he could offer to bolster — or provide cover for — that effort, it should be to be considered at the table.
Eight months later, the product of that one-on-one meeting was marked by another. This time the background was the Oval Office.
“Let me be clear,” Biden said as he sat next to Kishida surrounded by cameras. “The United States is totally, totally, totally committed to the alliance.”
For Biden and his national security team, Kishida’s visit serves as equal parts culmination and continuation of a foundational effort pursued since the administration’s opening days. It is a relationship that extends beyond a single bilateral relationship at a time when geopolitical tensions and risks have joined an approach to reshape the security posture of allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
China has been rapidly expanding its military capabilities, while also being increasingly clear about its territorial ambitions. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked the biggest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. All the while, North Korea has rapidly accelerated its missile tests and provocative actions.
For Biden, a geopolitical climate trending toward instability has created an opportunity to support allies in their efforts to build their own security and defense capabilities — one that national security adviser Jake Sullivan described as a version of new of a central concept of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. .
“For Reagan, it was peace through American strength,” Sullivan said in an interview with CNN. “For Biden, it’s peace through American and allied strength.”
As the administration enters its third year, the groundwork laid has shown tangible, if sometimes uneven, progress with Germany, Australia and eventually Japan.
In December, Kishida unveiled a new national security plan that signals the country’s biggest military buildup since World War II, doubling defense spending and deviating from its pacifist constitution in the face of growing threats from regional rivals, including China.
The decision marked a dramatic shift for both the nation and the US security alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.
“We believed we could have significant movement, but I don’t think anyone would have thought it would be this far, this quickly,” a senior administration official told CNN.
It also came at a time when Kishida faces his own political challenges at home — challenges that Biden was more than willing to try and help mitigate.
Kishida’s visit served as a window into two years of carefully calibrated work by the Biden team, senior administration officials said — one that created an environment for dramatic changes to strengthen American alliances at an increasingly difficult time.
“We started laying the groundwork for all of this long before Putin crossed the border into Ukraine,” Sullivan told CNN. “Above all, this has been a major diplomatic priority.”
It was a directive given by Biden early in the administration, with Sullivan as its central architect. The administration sought to build on existing alliances, both bilateral and regional, as officials urged their counterparts to accelerate spending and update their security and defense spending strategies.
They would ensure that it was understood that the US would be there to assist in any process undertaken, whether through increased defense capabilities, changes in US force posture or Biden himself, with a clear statement of support, political cover or – in this case. of Kishida – a coveted White House appointment.
The convergence of geopolitical events that align with that strategy has reshaped security strategies in ways that in previous years might have unsettled allies worried about rising regional tensions, or unsettled adversaries willing to match action with escalation.
However, the approach has managed to navigate a new willingness to test previous assessments of regional risk. That hasn’t been lost on allies, Sullivan said.
“We’re giving them confidence that as they go out on a limb, we’re not going to remove that limb,” Sullivan said.
In the days leading up to Kishida’s visit, the US and Japan announced a significant strengthening of their military relationship and an upgrade of the US military’s force posture in the region, including the deployment of a newly revamped marine unit with advanced intelligence, surveillance and ability to launch anti-ship missiles.
It is one of the most significant adjustments to the posture of US military force in the region in years, an official said, underscoring the Pentagon’s desire to transition from past wars in the Middle East to the future in the Indo-Pacific region. .
It also sent a clear signal of the stability of US support for Japan’s strategic shift – one that administration officials have made clear is a critical component of their regional strategy for years to come.
“When you think about it in terms of long-term impact, this is a huge increase in net security capability in a country that (is) geographically significant,” the official said.
For a president and an administration intensely focused on China, tending to — and building — the long critical alliance with Japan was a focal point from the start. Biden invited Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, for the first visit by a foreign leader of his presidency.
The decision was taken to elevate the Quad – the informal alliance of the US, Japan, India and Australia – to the leader level. The US included Japan in consultations on the Indo-Pacific strategy. Administration officials have been looking across economic and technology sectors to find new areas of cooperation, officials said.
But if China’s actions had initiated a lasting change in Japan’s general attitude, Russia’s actions accelerated it to another level.
Japan, throughout the US effort to rally allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has served as a steadfast partner. Kishida has been clear about his views on Russia’s actions not only in the context of Europe, but also in the Indo-Pacific.
“I myself have a strong sense of urgency that today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia,” Kishida said in a keynote speech in Singapore last June that offered broad outlines of the shift in security strategy he was weighing.
By the time Kishida met with Biden in November in Cambodia, he would share the specifics with the US president during another one-on-one meeting.
He also made it clear he would take Biden up on his offer during their private meeting in Tokyo. The Biden administration will have to immediately issue a statement in support of the proposal.
Biden agreed, and on the day Kishida publicly announced his plans, an official statement from Sullivan followed, calling it a “bold and historic step.”
Kishida also requested an invitation to the White House shortly after the Dec. 16 announcement.
On January 3, the White House publicly announced plans for Kishida’s visit.
Less than two weeks later, Biden was waiting outside the White House as Kishida pulled up in a black SUV.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve been closer to Japan in the United States,” Biden said shortly afterward as the two sat together in the Oval Office.