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Japan’s leader hopes White House visit will give him a political boost

President Biden hopes so too, as the Japanese public bristles at the cost of a more muscular military

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida holds a joint news conference with the Italian prime minister after their meeting in Rome on Tuesday. Kishida is on a week-long trip to Europe and North America. (Ettore Ferrari/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

TOKYO — It’s been a tough few months for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at home: Four ministers resigned, including the justice minister, who made light of his responsibility to sign off on executions. Kishida’s party is embroiled in a political scandal. His ratings are plummeting. Talks of a “post-Kishida” era have already begun.

But abroad, Kishida’s diplomatic profile is rising. And in Washington, he is hailed for his efforts to deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance, including the recent release of Japan’s ambitious plans to dramatically boost its defense spending.

On Friday, Kishida will make his first visit to the White House since becoming prime minister just over a year ago.

It will be a chance for Kishida, formerly a longtime foreign minister, to play to one of his key strengths — diplomacy — and demonstrate President Biden’s warm embrace of Japan’s new national security strategy before the politically sensitive debate begins in parliament on how to pay for the new defense budget.

“This summit is, without a doubt, to show appreciation for Japan and Prime Minister Kishida’s work to date and to give him, to build off that, forward momentum going into 2023,” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in an interview.

It’s an opportunity for Biden, too, analysts say. His appearance alongside Kishida would send a signal to China and North Korea of the two countries’ deepening alliance and cement Kishida’s commitment to his country’s new national security strategy despite his weak political standing, noted Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia program and director of the Japan program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“For Biden, by explicitly endorsing what Kishida’s government laid out in its national security strategy, the U.S. side is also binding Japan to that commitment, which makes it harder for Japan to significantly alter that plan,” Tatsumi said.

Wary of China, Japan unveils sweeping new national security strategy

Kishida and Biden are expected to address a range of national security and economic security issues as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second year, and as China’s military threats and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions continue to grow. They will also discuss new areas of cooperation, such as space, and how to work together to counter China’s dominance of the global supply chain.

The United States will be Kishida’s final stop on a week-long tour of key Western partners to lay the groundwork ahead of the Group of Seven summit in May, to be held in his hometown of Hiroshima. During his visits, Kishida is discussing opportunities for the world’s largest economies to cooperate on defense, climate, energy, nuclear disarmament and sanctions on Russia — which are all expected to be major themes for the summit.

“I intend to affirm our common understanding regarding the current situation, including that we are now in a severe security environment, with Russian aggression against Ukraine among other factors, and that the global economy is also facing the possibility of downside risk,” Kishida said in a news conference Sunday.

The two leaders’ meeting comes as the security landscape in the region grows increasingly complex. Last month, Japan unveiled a major defense buildup unprecedented in the postwar period as it grapples with the risk of war across the Taiwan Strait, to its south.

Russia’s invasion prompts more assertive foreign policy from Japan

As the United States’ most important ally in Asia, Japan plays a key role in advancing the Biden administration’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Under Kishida, Japan has expanded and diversified security partnerships throughout the region and in Europe, including with Australia, Lithuania and Germany, and ramped up diplomacy with European and Southeast Asian countries.

Japan was the first Asian country to join Western countries in imposing sanctions on Russia after its Ukraine invasion, which, for Japan, served as a premonition of what a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could look like.

Japan now plans to take steps that were previously unthinkable under its pacifist postwar constitution, such as acquiring “counterstrike” capabilities, or the ability to hit enemy bases with long-range missiles and coordinate with the United States in such circumstances.

“Japan is now moving toward having not only a ‘shield’ but also a ‘spear,’” said Kazuhiro Maeshima, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “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.”

Japan’s recent steps to enhance its deterrence are complementary to U.S. efforts in the region, including the national security strategy that the Biden administration released in October, Emanuel said.

Biden takes aggressive posture toward China on Asia trip

In the past year, the two leaders have been working to “shrink the distance between the trans-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific into a single strategic sphere,” Emanuel said, bridging the gap over shared security and economic challenges.

“It’s probably one of the biggest developments that the two leaders have produced,” Emanuel said.

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 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. Even some members of his party have balked at his plan.

A poll released by Japanese broadcaster NHK this week found 45 percent in support of and 33 percent against Kishida, with 61 percent of the public opposing tax increases for defense spending.

Their skepticism comes after months of growing frustration with Kishida’s leadership. Public outrage grew after the July 2022 assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe revealed widespread ties between Japanese politicians and the Unification Church, a politically influential religious group. People protested Kishida’s decision to use taxpayer money to pay for a state funeral for Abe, a divisive leader. Then came a series of resignations by scandal-ridden ministers.

So the stakes are high on Friday for Kishida, who is well-regarded in Washington and appears most at ease in diplomatic settings.

“A sustainable security commitment cannot be made without firmly convincing public opinion,” Maeshima said. “Demonstrating that the Japan-U.S. alliance is strong at the summit meeting will help persuade Japanese domestic public opinion.”

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the Stimson Center. This article has been corrected.

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