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Joe Biden May Just Provide the Push Japan Needs

Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, center, salutes as he reviews troops of the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) at Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Camp Asaka in Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Japan is planning its biggest-ever allocation to defense spending in an extra budget, as it seeks to speed up missile defense projects with China tensions simmering.
Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, center, salutes as he reviews troops of the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) at Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Camp Asaka in Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Japan is planning its biggest-ever allocation to defense spending in an extra budget, as it seeks to speed up missile defense projects with China tensions simmering. (Bloomberg)
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The “Joe-Kishi” era has arrived. 

Japan-US ties have long been defined by friendships between the two countries’ leaders, epitomized by the 1980’s “Ron-Yasu” relationship of Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone. While Japan has traditionally forged closer ties with Republican presidents than Democrats — think Junichiro Koizumi visiting Graceland with George W. Bush, or Shinzo Abe’s becoming golfing-buddies with Donald Trump but not Barack Obama — the relatively left-leaning Fumio Kishida will have much in common with Joe Biden when the two meet in Tokyo. 

They have, of course, been in virtual conferences together. Even so, a real-life meeting has been long overdue. Biden’s Asian trip, his first as president, was delayed by the pandemic, and then by the war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion looms large in a region where parallels are drawn with China and its designs on nearby territories. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be the phantom menace hovering over all discussions during Biden’s visit, with possible disruptive cameos by the Kim dynasty of North Korea.

Biden will be picking up where the Trump administration left off, continuing the dramatic US shift in its relationship with China. In 2014, Obama and Abe spoke of building a “productive and constructive relationship” with Beijing. This time, Biden’s readout with Kishida is likely to include a pledge to “deter and respond to” China’s activities in the region. 

Such resolve from the US will be a relief to Japan. China might be its largest trading partner, but it’s also a regional adversary — and potential antagonist. Surveys show 91% of Japanese have a negative impression of the country. The Nikkei business paper led its front page Friday with dramatic photos purporting to show the Chinese military training to take out the early warning surveillance aircraft of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. 

In the past, Japan’s concerns often fell on deaf ears. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made its case much clearer. Tokyo fears the Senkaku islands could be the Crimea to Japan’s Ukraine, and will seek the customary assurances over US plans to defend the islands disputed by Beijing, which are called Diaoyu in Chinese. 

The perceived threats have Japan finally talking about paying more for defense after decades of capping spending at 1% of gross domestic product. Kishida is expected to use the summit to announce plans to spend more on defense, though targets may be vague. Former Pentagon officials say the proposals to double the military budget in five years aren’t going be fast enough. They’re right. Biden should push Kishida to lay out significantly more. With popular opinion having swung in favor of boosting defense spending, Kishida has cover to wake the country out of its pacifist slumber.

As much as 60% of the defense budget goes toward personnel, according to Kazuto Suzuki, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo. “Much more investment is necessary for military R&D,” he says. Japan’s spending just 5% of what the American military invests in new technology. “This is pathetic,” he says.

Japan has historically responded well to gaiatsu, or foreign pressure, often using it as cover to push through politically unpalatable measures — from cleaning up its banks to opening agricultural markets. The US may no longer be in a position to dictate to Japan on economy or trade —  but it can certainly talk on defense spending. 

Biden can also help Japan and its erstwhile regional rival South Korea to start cooperating. One olive branch would be for Kishida to encourage the expansion of the “Quad” Indo-Pacific strategic security group — composed of US, Japan, India and Australia — into a “Quint” with an invitation to the new administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul. The leaders of the Quad nations are set to meet on May 24 in Tokyo.

Kishida, a campaigner for ending nuclear weapons with his roots in Hiroshima, may be able to do what Abe could not: overcome political opposition to boost Japan’s defense spending and profile as a military power. Local observers say it could be a “Nixon to China” parallel, a reference to the anti-communist US president’s surprise breakthrough visit to Mao Zedong’s Beijing, ending decades of enmity and ushering in four decades of seeming cooperation. That benign era is over and Biden can use all the backup he can get as he confronts Xi’s China. The Joe-Kishi relationship could be just what both the US and Japan need. 

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

Ukraine Is a Wake-Up Call in Faraway Japan: Gearoid Reidy

Why Japan and Germany Are Ready to Fight Once Again: Ian Buruma

China Is Winning Battle for the South Pacific: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News senior editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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