An unusually direct message to Congress from Japan’s PM: ‘All hands on deck’

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By John J. Metzler, April 18, 2024

It’s not often an American ally and partner addresses the U.S. Congress; but when they do, it’s time to listen.

That was certainly the case when Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke before a joint session of Congress in Washington to both thank America for its post-war friendship and to reaffirm the continuing political and strategic partnership between Japan and the United States.

“China’s current external stance and military actions present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge, not only to the peace and security of Japan but to the peace and stability of the international community at large,” Fumio Kishida warned on April 11.

He continued, “While such a challenge from China continues, our commitment to upholding a free and open international order based on the rule of law, as well as peace, will continue to be the defining agenda.”

Well said and certainly true. But there are a few unspoken issues here.

Japanese leaders traditionally are far more politically circumspect and diplomatically elliptical even when speaking to friends concerning the most pressing challenges. Kishida was clear and unequivocal.

Building on the close political relationship between former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former President Donald Trump, the geopolitical side of this vital trans-Pacific relationship has reached new heights with Kishida (who by the way was Abe’s Foreign Minister).

What has also changed Japan’s political views has been the clear and menacing strategic tilt in East Asia from an assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC) and an increasingly hostile North Korea.

Provocative ballistic missile firings by the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as well as the Ukraine war, have jolted the region’s attention from Seoul to Tokyo and Manila.

As Prime Minister Kishida intoned to Congress, “North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is a direct threat…North Korea’s provocations have impact beyond the region.”

He added significantly, “It has also exported its ballistic missiles to support Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, greatly increasing the suffering of the Ukrainian people.”

The Prime Minister continued, “As I often say, Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow.”

He stressed, “Japan has transformed its national security strategy. Uncertainty about the future stability of the Indo-Pacific region caused us to change our policies and our very mindset.”

Honor their memory: The ‘shot heard round the world’

Japan has also openly addressed the long-standing thorny issue of Japan’s military spending; Too little for an economy and country Japan’s size, but historically rationalized in the post-war era as acceptable given the longstanding Defense Treaty with the U.S.

Thus, for the longest time, even going back to the Reagan Administration, Japan was comfortable to spend only one percent of GDP on its defense despite polite chiding from Washington; Yet given Japan’s economic strength, that one percent, few realized, remained quite formidable.

That’s now changed.  “In 2022, we announced that we would secure a substantial increase of our defense budget by FY 2027 to 2% of GDP,” Kishida announced, adding, “Today, the deterrence that our Alliance provides is stronger than ever.”

Viewing the role of American leadership internationally, Prime Minister Kishida stated:

“Although the world looks to your leadership, the U.S. should not be expected to do it all, unaided and on your own. Yes, the leadership of the United States is indispensable.”

He added realistically, “Without the presence of the United States, how long before the Indo-Pacific would face even harsher realities?”

Using a metaphor, Kishida stressed, “On the spaceship called ‘Freedom and Democracy,’ Japan is proud to be your shipmate. We are on deck, we are on task. And we are ready to do what is necessary….The democratic nations of the world must have all hands on deck.”

He stressed, “I am here to say that Japan is already standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States. You are not alone. We are with you.”

Shortly after his address to Congress, Prime Minister Kishida joined President Joe Biden and Philippine President Marcos for a trilateral Summit to reinforce security ties, especially countering Beijing’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Biden stressed, “The United States defense commitments to Japan and to the Philippines are ironclad.”  Hopefully, but.

These events must be viewed in the context of nervous unease concerning American leadership.

Leadership is a proven quality, not a talking point.  Failure to maintain serious U.S. deterrence in the midst of unserious debate and theatrics; political unreliability facing the Ukraine war and Israel’s war in Gaza, brings the Biden Administration tiptoeing to the brink of wider conflicts.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]