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Japan Has Become America’s Most Important Ally

April 10, 2024

When Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida heads to the White House on Wednesday to meet with President Biden, he comes as the leader of a nation that has quietly become America’s most important ally.  But Japan has become America’s most important ally in a rather unconventional way: by speaking softly and keeping a decidedly lower profile than other, more vocal U.S. allies.

The past decade has witnessed the emergence of a new Japan on the world stage. Rocked by China’s behavior during the COVID epidemic, by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by China’s continuing threat to Taiwan and its expansionist territorial claims in the South China Sea -- as well as by the growing North Korea nuclear threat -- Japan has been shedding the pacifist restrictions the victorious United States imposed in the country's postwar 1947 constitution.

The turnaround began under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014, when Japan asserted its right to collective, alliance-based self-defense should Japan come under attack. Under Abe, Japan abandoned its once-sacrosanct process-oriented foreign policy that was expressed through participation in UN-based multilateral institutions, focusing instead on critical bilateral and multilateral partnerships.  It has continued under Prime Minister Kishida, who in his masterful leadership of the G7 last year highlighted the importance of Ukraine’s fight, oft noting that “What is happening in Europe today could happen in East Asia tomorrow.” 

Recognizing its strategic centrality at this moment of geostrategic peril, Japan is revamping its military and will double defense spending by 2027. The move is arguably the largest-ever peacetime defense spending increase by a democratic ally of the U.S. -- and second only to the U.S. defense buildup in the early 1980s.  Japan is acquiring counterstrike capabilities, including medium-range missiles that could deter China, and deepening its ties to regional security partners as well as Europe.  

Japan is already playing a central role in meeting our nation’s principal strategic challenge: the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China, especially the defense of Taiwan.  More American troops – 54,000 – are stationed in Japan than any other foreign country, along with a significant proportion of the equipment and materiel needed for Taiwan’s defense.   

Japan is the international “gateway” to Taiwan -- Japan’s Yonaguni Island, part of Okinawa, is just seventy miles away, as Lt. Gen. Koichiro Bansho (JSDF, rtd.), the former head of Japan’s Western Army, has noted. Yonaguni is central to the defense of the “first island chain,” which runs from the Kuril Islands in the north of Japan to Malaysia in the south.  Five of the nine entry points for China to the broader Pacific go through Japan.  

Japan is also our gateway to the Indo-Pacific writ large. Thanks to its long-term engagement with Southeast Asia, Japan has forged relations of deep trust with nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries often vacillate between their economic dependence on China and their security dependence on the United States.

Japan’s longstanding cooperation with the Philippines, especially the Philippine Navy, remained strong when former President Rodrigo Duterte turned against the US.  The Japan-Philippines relationship helped paved the way for what has become, under his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., a close trilateral relationship embodied in the historic first-ever U.S.-Japan-Philippines leaders meeting that will take place at the White House after the US-Japan summit. Extending US-Japan security cooperation and economic cooperation to the Philippines bolsters our alliance against the People’s Republic of China significantly, especially as Taiwan, Japan’s own Senkaku Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal all have been subject to encroachment by China.  

The U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral relationship enhances the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), the Indo-Pacific democratic partnership of Japan, Australia, India and the U.S., which has tightened coordination on supply chains, security and international development. It, in turn, is being enhanced by the revived U.S.-Japan-South Korea relationship.

Japan is central to all these relationships. Although Japan has quietly eclipsed more visible American allies, the nation has been characteristically discreet in its emergence as America's most important partner. A humble posture allows Japan to cultivate the very relations of trust in the Indo-Pacific that are central to Japan’s ability to project so-called soft power.

This works to the advantage of the United States: a recent ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute poll showed Japan to be the most trusted major power among ASEAN opinion leaders, while the same poll showed most Southeast Asians, shockingly, would prefer to align with China over the U.S. if they had to choose sides.

For far too long, Japan spoke softly but failed to carry a big stick. Now, by speaking softly, it has enhanced American diplomacy. By starting to carry its own sticks, Japan is both enhancing the U.S.-Japan alliance and making a significant contribution to Indo-Pacific security. We would expect nothing less from our most important ally.

Kenneth R. Weinstein is Japan Chair at Hudson Institute.  

This article was originally published by RealClearWorld and made available via RealClearWire.
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