Japan’s Visit to America Exposed US Leadership Legitimacy Issues

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Biden, Youtube screenshot.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Washington in early April 2024 to reaffirm strategic partnership and geopolitical interests with the United States. Japanese National Security Adviser, Takeo Akiba defined the visit as illustrative of an “epic shift in Japan’s defense posture.” He observed that Japan was experiencing its most extreme security situation since the Second World War in terms of stability and referenced Japan’s National Security Strategy of December 2022 as a reaction to the trend.

In this interview, exclusive for Counterpunch, political scientist Lauren McKee (author of Japanese Government and Politics, Columbia University Press, 2023) discusses how Japan places itself as a substitute for U.S. leadership, as U.S. legitimacy is questioned around the world because of its deleterious Mideast wars.

The US-Japan Alliance perhaps marks an end to Japanese stability as the coalition jeopardizes the integrity of Japan’s pacifist constitution. How much of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party rhetoric, perhaps rooted in reactionary ideology and funded by the CIA, can be taken seriously when it references human liberation and dedication to freedom and democracy? Japan’s recent visit, presented as a great meeting between two allied, exceptional, and democratic nations, undermines the reality of their steadfast core commitments: capitalism and imperialism.

Daniel Falcone: How much of Japan’s recent visit has to do with perceptions of democracy and how much does it depend on signaling oppositions to China?

Lauren McKee: To some degree, it’s about both, because the two are often linked through various security arrangements. Former prime minister Abe worked to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia in 2017, the premise of which is the collaboration of countries with similar values based on democracy. This “values-based politics” has been one cornerstone of the current security dialogue in East Asia. While Kishida is not as keen as Abe to place Japan at the center of a reinvigorated, more robust security policy in the region, he did mention in his April 11 address to Congress that the international order the U.S. has worked to build is facing new challenges from those with “values and principles very different” from the U.S. and Japan’s. While he goes on to discuss the challenges posed by climate change and A.I., the unspoken threat he is signaling here is indeed China.

He also mentioned in his address that the U.S. is not alone in its efforts to uphold world order, with the implication that the threat to the current world order is China. There is also plenty of observable evidence to signal Japan is doubling down on the U.S. security alliance with an eye to China—the new security documents released in December of 2022, plans to acquire new weapons from the U.S., etc. The diplomatic meetings are the public facing accompaniment to Japan’s new security strategy.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about Japan’s approach to foreign policy historically and its relationship with the United States?

Lauren McKee: Historically, Japan’s foreign policy has been built around economic diplomacy rather than military cooperation. One explanation for this is the limitations imposed by Article 9 of Japan’s constitution which limits the scope of the Self Defense Forces (SDF). Various reinterpretations of Article 9 have given more freedom for what the SDF can do internationally, and that has sometimes meant providing support for the U.S. in places like Afghanistan. But more often, Japan uses its economic and financial power to form relationships with other countries through trade agreements, foreign direct investments, and official development assistance. In this way, Japan has positioned itself as an alternative to U.S. leadership, which continues to face legitimacy problems in many countries after the Iraq War and abandonment of Afghanistan. Japan doesn’t have the same problematic past in those regions and has therefore been successful in forming ties with many countries in the Middle East and Africa. Japan’s relationship with the U.S. has required careful balancing.

The security treaty between the two has lasted more than 70 years, and when it was originally signed in the 1950s and renegotiated in 1960, many politicians in Japan recognized the value of having American military protection at a time when all national efforts were directed at economic rebuilding. Even so, that doesn’t mean the relationship has been easy—many in Japan, both politicians and citizens, have protested the presence of U.S. military bases in Japan and U.S. requests for Japan to participate in multilateral efforts in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Under the leadership of former prime minister Abe Shinzo, Japan positioned itself as more of a leader, especially among countries who are concerned about the rise of China as a global economic and military force. This signaled Japan’s desire to be on more equal footing with the U.S. as a regional power in East Asia. Current prime minister Kishida Fumio is less hawkish than Abe, but he is still carrying out previously formed security policies of his party, the Liberal Democrats (LDP).

Daniel Falcone: Can you explain the politics and leadership style of Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida? Does the US system have a politician, interest group or party analogous to his worldview?

Lauren McKee: Factional membership is important within the Liberal Democratic Party, or the LDP, and Kishida’s faction, known as the “dove faction,” has historically preferred to focus on economic growth while maintaining a close relationship with the U.S. for security. His faction is also known for working closely with various bureaucracies, which has been difficult lately because of the breakdown of Japanese bureaucracy. This means Kishida has lost his foundation, and his policies are mostly riffs on those of previous administrations. He promised a “New Capitalism” based on less neoliberalism and more wealth redistribution, but no progress has been made so far. Even the 2022 security documents are continuations of LDP policy goals from previous years. Kishida’s administration has also been plagued with scandal—in January of 2024, he disbanded his faction following allegations the LDP did not report large sums of money collected through political fund-raisers. Though he is popular internationally, Kishida has low approval numbers at home and is clearly still finding his own direction without relying on the LDP or the bureaucracy for cues.

Prime ministers in Japan have not really exhibited the charisma and flair we might observe in presidents around the world. Abe and Koizumi Junichiro have been exceptions. But then, ministers don’t have a mandate to govern independent of the legislature. They can lose their positions because of low approval ratings, sure, but only if it is the ruling party’s will. Strategic moves within the party are better paths to political success than charisma or popularity. Kishida is reliable, a team player, a leader who seeks consensus and knows how to manipulate party politics. And even with his low approval numbers, the LDP will likely survive because the opposition is in shambles. The “rule” in Japanese politics has been that short administrations usually follow long ones, and Kishida’s time in office is coming off the one-year tenure of Suga Yoshihide, which followed Abe’s tenure from 2012-202, the longest administration in modern Japanese history. The LDP will survive, but Kishida’s success will rely on whether he can emerge as a leader of his party rather than a player within it.

Daniel Falcone: What do readers need to know about the LDP or Liberal Democratic Party of Japan? Does Japan and the United States have an interest in controlling and preserving the defining elements of this party’s history to maintain order in the present?

Lauren McKee: The LDP has been in power almost constantly since Japan’s return to sovereignty post-WWII. Its success partly lies in the U.S. covertly funneling support to the LDP in early elections as an alternative to the Japan Communist Party. While the LDP does lean conservative, its success has also rested in a certain degree of ambiguity in its policies beyond promoting economic growth. Various factions within the LDP are supportive of the security treaty with the U.S., but in general, the LDP and its politicians have found working within the confines of the security treaty more realistic than trying to change it. The opposition parties’ policies range in terms of support for the security treaty, but most would seek reform and greater independence for Japan. For this reason, the U.S. would likely prefer continuing to work with the LDP because its policies are relatively known entities.

Daniel Falcone: How do you see the diplomatic ties and displays of unity with Japan unfolding for the US geopolitically?

Lauren McKee: Former U.S. president Barack Obama envisioned a new kind of foreign policy he called the “Asia Pivot.” The idea was the U.S. would pivot its resources and focus to East Asia given the strategic importance of the region. Since conflict in Eastern Europe and the Middle East had subsided, the U.S. would be able to pull resources from those regions and refocus them in East Asia—particularly in South Korea, Japan, and Australia. The Asia Pivot never came to be, given the resurgence of terrorist activity and conflict in the Middle East and Russian aggressions in Ukraine. However, the U.S.’s inability to pivot doesn’t mean East Asia is strategically unimportant. In Washington D.C.’s decision-making circles, there is great enthusiasm for a more proactive Japan that cooperates and coordinates with the U.S.

Japan’s policy so far has been to tread carefully in its relationship with China. Given the economic ties between China and the rest of the world, there is little to gain from conflict. Japan’s planned increases in military spending (if the increases can come to fruition) are justified as defensive, yet this increased militarization can send an offensive signal to China. It is difficult to strike a balance between feeling secure and triggering an opponent. The key is in diplomatic talks, but those have been happening less and less between China, Japan, and the U.S.

Japan’s actions are in step with U.S. policy in the region, which has been to avoid provocation but be prepared for any event. If China does indeed pose a challenge, and the U.S. and Japan seem convinced it does, the security treaty will work in each country’s favor. The U.S. would inevitably be pulled into conflict with China anyway, and Japan can only benefit from the U.S.’s resources. Hopefully, the strong ties between the U.S. and Japan and other countries in the region continue to be a deterrence to any conflict.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.