Prime Minister Kishida’s Official Visit to Washington

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio this week is conducting an official visit to Washington, the first by a Japanese leader since former prime minister Abe Shinzo visited in 2015. Official or state visits feature the highest diplomatic honors that can be accorded a visiting leader, including a state dinner; this is just the fifth such visit during the Biden administration. With Kishida, four of the five have been leaders of Indo-Pacific countries—Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea—including all members of the Quad. In addition to meetings at the White House with President Biden, Kishida will deliver an address to a joint meeting of Congress on April 11 and travel to North Carolina, where he will visit a new electric vehicle battery factory built by Toyota and a Honda aircraft factory. He will also join a trilateral meeting with Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on April 11 at the White House.

Q1: What is the purpose of Prime Minister Kishida’s visit?

A1: The purpose of the visit for both leaders is to highlight the global reach of U.S.-Japan cooperation, underscore the benefits of the relationship for the American people, and lock in progress in the run-up to a potential period of political transition in both countries. Kishida faces political headwinds at home and suffers from approval ratings that have hovered below 30 percent for several months; although he faces no immediate challengers, opponents may emerge in advance of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership election in September 2024. For Kishida, a major goal of the visit is to showcase his stewardship of the alliance at a time of daunting security challenges in Japan’s immediate neighborhood—and to encourage sustained U.S. leadership on the global stage, regardless of who wins the election in November.

Q2: What are the most important outcomes of the visit?

A2: The visit featured several significant outcomes related to defense, which collectively signal movement toward a more operational alliance and an increased focus on defense industry cooperation. The two leaders announced the intent to “bilaterally upgrade” the command and control framework of the alliance—a potentially transformative step that could make the alliance far more operationally credible and responsive. The Defense Department is developing options to establish a U.S. joint operational command in Japan for the first time, to serve as the day-to-day counterpart for Japan’s new Joint Operations Command. The “2+2” process—meetings of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and their Japanese counterparts—will now carry forward the task of developing a detailed concept this year.

The allies also announced plans to deepen defense industrial cooperation by establishing a new Forum on Defense Industrial Cooperation, Acquisition, and Sustainment (DICAS), chaired by the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment; announcing plans to expand co-development and co-production of missiles; and announcing that the AUKUS partners are “considering” cooperation with Japan on projects related to Pillar Two, which focuses on advanced capabilities. The Biden administration intends to identify a specific project for Japanese participation by the end of the year. In addition, the leaders announced that some U.S. Navy ships and U.S. Air Force aircraft will undergo maintenance and sustainment at Japanese facilities rather than returning to the United States, a significant step that will cut costs for the United States and potentially reduce the time that U.S. assets are taken out of service.

An additional theme under defense cooperation emphasized by the leaders is growing multilateralism. The leaders announced expanded cooperation with the United Kingdom, including plans for a regular exercise beginning in 2025. The joint statement also included a commitment to expand air defense cooperation with Australia by integrating radars and other sensors over time.

The visit featured important deliverables in other areas as well. In a surprise announcement, the leaders announced a “shared goal” for a Japanese astronaut to be the first non-American to land on the moon on a future Artemis campaign mission, likely in the late 2020s. And the two governments are deepening collaboration on technology, including through a new $110 million AI research partnership supported by a consortium of universities and private companies.

Q3: What will be the focus of Kishida’s speech to Congress?

A3: The thrust of Kishida’s message will be that Japan is stepping up. He will frame Japan as a key ally for the United States globally, including in Ukraine. Kishida will likely highlight the recent actions that Japan has taken to strengthen its defense posture—including increasing defense spending to nearly 2 percent of GDP, acquiring long-range counterstrike missiles, and loosening restrictions on defense equipment exports and transfers. He will likely underscore the role Japan has played in Ukraine, through both reconstruction support and indirect supplies of military equipment—such as backfilling U.S. stocks of Patriot air defense missiles, which Japan announced in December. And he will urge continued strong U.S. leadership on the world stage.

Q4: What will be the long-term impact of the visit?

A4: Kishida’s visit comes at a time of political uncertainty in both countries, with the real possibility of leadership transitions in both countries later this year. But the visit will highlight the depth and breadth of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the broad support it enjoys in both countries. Over the last 20 years, the U.S.-Japan relationship has built deep bipartisan support in the United States, and that is only likely to continue as Japan invests more in defense and emerges as a real security partner for Washington.

Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.