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Fumio Kishida Travels to the United States as Prime Minister of a More Assertive Japan

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Embattled Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida travels to the White House on Friday for a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden that promises to deepen the two nations’ security alliance amid rising tensions with China and North Korea.

It will be Kishida’s first meeting with Biden since December’s announcement of Japan’s biggest military build-up since World War II, and it follows whistlestop visits by Kishida to Britain, France, Italy, and Canada—industrial powers that Japan will host at a G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.

On Friday, Kishida and Biden are expected to discuss Japan’s plans to acquire missiles able to strike targets across East Asia, efforts to limit China’s access to advanced technology like semiconductors, and strategies to end Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the two leaders will also agree to new cooperation on thwarting potential threats from space, reconfiguring U.S. troop deployments on Japan’s island of Okinawa, and developing uninhabited islands for joint military drills.

“The big message here is the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” says Jeffery Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan. Kishida, he says, “has basically pushed through a major transformation in Japan’s security policy.”

The trip is also seen as key to restoring domestic credibility for Kishida, who took office in 2021, following a slew of scandals—over resignations by senior colleagues and his Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the cult-like Unification Church—which have seen his cabinet’s approval rating plummet from 53% in June to 25% in December.

Japan’s new military posture

In December, Japan revised three key defense policy documents, including the National Security Strategy, drastically boosting its military spending while acquiring capabilities to preemptively strike enemy bases in a major departure from its pacifist constitution.

Japan’s draft budget for next year includes $1.58 billion for U.S.-made long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles amid a stated aim to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2027—a figure in line with NATO targets. Although Japan is not a NATO member, Kishida attended a summit of the military alliance in June as an observer and considers the country a stakeholder in the Ukraine conflict given its disputed maritime border with Russia.

The shifting military posture also comes as Beijing ramps up military exercises near neighboring Taiwan and as North Korea launched a record number of missile tests last year (many of which passed over Japan). Last month, Kishida agreed to develop a new fighter jet with the U.K. and Italy, and he signed a deal with the former that will allow visits by each other’s armed forces.

These moves all align with the Biden administration’s call for Japan to play a bolder role in regional security.

“The United States needs the Indo-Pacific region to be prosperous and secure in order for the United States itself to be prosperous and secure,” a senior State Department official tells TIME.

Focus on Taiwan

Beijing’s military assertiveness around self-ruling Taiwan—which China claims as its sovereign territory—has unsettled Japan and the U.S., not least since China and Moscow held joint military drills in the East China Sea just last month.

In a joint statement, Washington and Tokyo said China presents an “unprecedented” threat to the international order. “China’s foreign policy seeks to reshape the international order to its benefit and to employ China’s growing political, economic, military, and technological power to that end,” it said.

Beijing launched unprecedented military drills encircling Taiwan—some less than 10 miles from its coast—in August following a visit by then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In an ominous sign, new Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he plans to follow suit, which would no doubt prompt a similar furious reaction from Beijing.

Biden will also hope to persuade Kishida to limit cooperation with China on new technology-driven industries such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and, particularly, semiconductor chips. Although Kishida has said he backs Biden’s export restrictions on semiconductors to China imposed in October, he has not yet agreed to match the curbs given the potential for economic retribution from China, Japan’s largest trade partner.

Setting the scene for the G7

It’s no coincidence that Kishida’s weeklong tour focuses on nations belonging to the G7, for which he will host a summit in his home city of Hiroshima in May. Since Japan’s defeat in World War II, its constitution has enshrined the principle that it will not wage war. Yet Kishida will hope to use the optics of the formerly nuclear-ravaged city—where an estimated 70,000-140,000 people died after the atomic bombing of Aug. 6, 1945—to press home the magnitude of new threats on its borders.

Not only has Russian President Vladimir Putin openly threatened nuclear war against the U.S. and its allies, but experts believe North Korea is rapidly preparing for a seventh nuclear test. “Politically, the symbolism is very important,” says Kingston.

The G7 will also be important to secure Kishida’s political future. An impending $7 billion tax hike to pay for the military expansion means there’s been no shortage of criticism. Kishida, says Airo Hino, a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Waseda University, “ would like to balance that out by making diplomatic progress with other leaders at the G7 summit.” Hino says that an expected popularity boost following the summit may even prompt Kishida to call a snap election to assert his mandate.

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