Joe Biden might just give the boost Japan needs

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The “Joe-Kishi” era has arrived.

Japan-US relations have long been defined by friendships between the two countries’ leaders, epitomized by the 1980s “Ron-Yasu” relationship between 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 becoming golf buddies with Donald Trump but not Barack Obama – Fumio Kishida, relatively on the left, will have a lot to do. common with Joe Biden when the two meet in Tokyo.

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

Biden will pick up where the Trump administration left off, continuing America’s sea change in its relationship with China. In 2014, Obama and Abe spoke of building a “productive and constructive relationship” with Beijing. This time, Biden’s reading with Kishida will likely include a pledge to “deter and respond” to China’s activities in the region.

Such determination by the United States will be a relief for Japan. China may be its biggest trading partner, but it’s also a regional adversary – and a potential antagonist. Polls show that 91% of Japanese have a negative impression of the country. The Nikkei business newspaper opened its front page on Friday with dramatic photos purporting to show Chinese military training to take down the Japan Self-Defense Force’s early warning surveillance aircraft.

In the past, Japan’s concerns have often fallen on deaf ears. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made its case much clearer. Tokyo fears the Senkaku Islands are the Crimea of ​​Japanese Ukraine and will seek the usual assurances about US plans to defend the islands disputed by Beijing, called Diaoyu in Chinese.

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 his intention to spend more on defense, although the goals may be vague. Former Pentagon officials say proposals to double the military budget in five years won’t go fast enough. They’re right. Biden should push Kishida to flaunt a lot more. With popular opinion swung in favor of increased defense spending, Kishida has the cover to wake the country from its pacifist slumber.

According to Kazuto Suzuki, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy, up to 60% of the defense budget is spent on personnel. “Much more investment is needed for military R&D,” he says. Japan spends only 5% of what the US military invests in new technologies. “It’s pathetic,” he said.

Japan has always responded well to gaiatsu, or foreign pressure, often using it as a cover to push through politically unpalatable measures – from cleaning up its banks to opening up agricultural markets. The United States may no longer be able to dictate economics or trade to Japan, but it can certainly talk about defense spending.

Biden can also help Japan and former regional rival South Korea start cooperating. An olive branch would be for Kishida to encourage the expansion of the Indo-Pacific strategic security group “Quad” – made up of the United States, Japan, India and Australia – into a “Quint”. with an invitation to President Yoon Suk Yeol’s new administration in Seoul. Quad nations leaders are due to meet on May 24 in Tokyo.

Kishida, an activist for the end of nuclear weapons with his roots in Hiroshima, might be able to do what Abe couldn’t: overcome political opposition to increase Japan’s defense spending and profile himself as a power. military. Local observers say it could be a “Nixon to China” parallel, a reference to the anti-Communist US President Mao Zedong’s surprise visit to Beijing, ending decades of enmity and ushering in four decades of apparent cooperation. That benign era is over and Biden can use all the backup he can get as he takes on Xi’s China. The Joe-Kishi relationship could be just what the United States and Japan need.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Ukraine is a wake-up call in faraway Japan: Gearoid Reidy

Why Japan and Germany are ready to fight again: Ian Buruma

China wins the battle for the South Pacific: James Stavridis

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

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

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

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