The US-Japan meeting reveals the conviction of both nations to counter China

Prime Minister Kishida’s state visit to Washington focused on security, but that alone will not be enough to influence the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Expert comment
Published 12 April 2024 4 minute READ

The meeting of President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida reflects the sheer determination of the Biden administration to maintain its strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific and on countering China’s rise. It signals the clear ambition by these two Pacific powers to upgrade their security and defence cooperation as a counterweight to a rising and assertive China.

Coming on the heels of Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria, and the killing of World Central Kitchen humanitarian workers in Gaza in Israeli strikes, it is also a reminder that Washington faces ongoing hurdles in the effort to deliver on its strategic priorities. Brokering a deal that can bring stability to the Middle East is essential if the US wants to sharpen its focus in Asia. 

Efforts to press Congress to pass support for Ukraine have also accelerated. When it comes to the US’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, the future of Europe’s security may appear to be a distraction, but it is also a reminder of the catastrophic consequences of failed deterrence.

In this context, Kishida’s state visit is a further sign that the US has not lost sight of its strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. That policy is also being shored up with personnel, as demonstrated by the recent appointment of long-time senior expert on China and architect of President Obama’s pivot to Asia, Kurt Campbell, as Deputy Secretary of State.

Republicans and Democrats differ on the specific proposals for America’s China strategy, but few challenge the now dominant assumption that the US must be tough on China.

It also benefits uniquely from a bipartisan consensus – Republicans and Democrats differ on the specific proposals for America’s China strategy, but few challenge the now dominant assumption that the US must be tough on China and must secure its position in the Indo-Pacific, in part to ensure the region remains free and open.

Prime Minister Kishida’s visit comes after those by the leaders of South Korea, India and Australia – further signalling the importance the US places on its Indo-Pacific allies and partners. The only other official state visit that President Biden has hosted was with the prime minister of France. 

The offerings

The symbolism behind this visit is also important. It is only the second state visit by a Japanese Prime Minister to the US since the Second World War, and the first since 2015.

But the US-Japan meeting is more than symbolic. Japan is being hailed as the most important US partner in the Indo-Pacific. The meeting is designed to mark a new phase in the US-Japan security and defence relationship, stressing cooperation on a joint command structure and interoperability.

Planning for an effective, coordinated, and even combined response in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait is top of mind. 

Biden emphasized plans for ‘a networked system of air, missile and defence architecture’, indicating that planning for an effective, coordinated, and even combined response in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait is top of mind.

Furthermore, over 70 initiatives that aim to deepen defence ties, set the stage for joint development and even co-production of military and defence equipment are being announced, including one that emphasizes cooperation on artificial intelligence. 

Japan stepping up?

Japan’s role as the critical partner to the US in the Indo-Pacific is grounded in a shared interest in security and is driven by China’s rise and its growing assertiveness. The new momentum is premised on Japan’s determination to make significant changes in its approach to defence, especially its commitment to doubling its military spending and developing a counterstrike capability.

Uncertainty about future US commitments may also provide impetus to Japan to be on guard. But the form this is taking is closer alignment, with little hint of reference to ‘Trump-proofing’ of the variety that is gaining traction in debate across Europe.

Strikingly, the US-Japan relationship is now being defined as one with a global dimension and a commitment to security partnerships. This includes a new commitment to US-Japan-UK joint military exercises, and joint military exercises between the US, Japan, and the Philippines.  

All of this is nested in a shared commitment to a rules-based international order. Japan’s alignment with the US on Ukraine – its condemnation of Russia’s invasion, support of sanctions, and provision of more than $7 billion in international assistance – is also a reminder of the limits of the US’s other major Indo-Pacific partnership, that between the US and India. 

The limits of a security partnership

The emphasis on security and defence cooperation is critical but will not be enough to deliver the broader ambition shared by these two powers: to shape the rules, norms, and values that govern the Indo-Pacific, and beyond, in the Global South. For this, the necessary building blocks must also be economic, but the barriers are significant.

The US continues to be stymied by a pervasive anti-free-trade politics in Congress that prevents any president from even attempting to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade bloc of 12 countries that neither the US nor India are party to. 

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IPEF, the US alternative, has so far made little progress. Japan’s leadership has expressed its frustration that the US has no plans to join the CPTPP (even China has expressed interest in joining, and the UK became a member in July 2023).

The G7 has also so far failed to match China’s offer to the Global South, which stands at over $1 trillion of spending through its Belt and Road Initiative. 

The G7 has also so far failed to match China’s offer to the Global South, which stands at over $1 trillion of spending through its Belt and Road Initiative. Successive G7 leaders have continued to stress the importance of a Western values-based alternative, and there is a friendly but definite competition to lead the Global South between India and Brazil, as well as G7 countries. But delivery on this aspiration has so far been limited.

Japan’s state visit is also a reminder that US strategy in the Indo-Pacific continues to be anchored in bilateral relationships, but that it is seeking to bust beyond this constraint. There is no aspiration to replicate NATO in Asia, but the emphasis on regional security cooperation is growing, as evidenced by the ongoing commitment to AUKUS and the Quad, and trilateral cooperation with the Philippines.

For now, competition between the two rival visions for order in the Indo-Pacific, recently outlined by US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, shows no signs of abating. 

China continues to aspire to regional dominance and US retrenchment. The alternative option sees the US role in the Indo-Pacific, alongside Japan and other regional powers, as an imperative for the future of a rules-based order. It is this second vision that unites rather than divides a polarised US.