A Readout of the U.S.-Japan Leaders' Meeting

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Christopher B. Johnstone: Welcome and thanks to everyone for joining us, wherever you are and whatever time that it is. I’m Chris Johnstone. I’m senior advisor and Japan Chair here at CSIS. And I’m really delighted to be able to convene this virtual event today on the summit meeting last Friday between President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida. What a few weeks it has been for Japan and for the U.S.-Japan relationship. This is truly, I think it’s fair to say, a period of historic and unprecedented change.

On December 16th of last year, Japan unveiled new national security and defense strategies, which together included announcements that shattered policy norms in a number of areas that had been in place for decades. Japan announced plans to increase defense spending and defense-related spending by nearly double to about 2 percent of GDP by 2027. It also announced plans to acquire a range of new defense capabilities that it has long foresworn, including long-range precision-strike cruise missiles, and it laid out plans for investments in a variety of other areas, including space, cyber, uncrewed systems in other areas. And it signaled an intent to strengthen Japan’s defense industry, including through expanded international partnerships.

This is on top of an already robust economic security agenda that Prime Minister Kishida and his team have put in place, which aims to strengthen Japan’s capacity in a range of high-technology sectors, including semiconductors, and to put in place safeguards to protect Japan’s technological advantages. Last week was something of a capstone to these events, beginning with a 2+2 meeting of secretaries of state and defense, and foreign ministers of – foreign minister and defense minister last week. Which featured announcements on a range of initiatives to strengthen the U.S.-Japan defense partnership as well.

And then on Friday, Prime Minister Kishida came to the White House, putting an exclamation mark, really, on all these events. This was his first trip to Washington as prime minister, his first visit to the Oval Office. And it came at a big moment in the relationship. That’s quite a month, I must say. One that a few years ago would have seemed pretty unimaginable in this relationship.

And I’m really pleased to be joined today by two people who can give us a perspective on the meeting and on the state of the relationship really like no one else. I’m joined by Dr. Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific on the National Security Council, and Ambassador Tomita Koji, Japan’s ambassador to the United States. My sincere welcome to both of you.

What I’d like to do is start by inviting each of you to offer your broad assessment of the meeting and of the state of the relationship. And then I’ll ask a few questions and intersperse some questions that we’ve gotten from our audience as well, if that works for both of you. And perhaps, Kurt, just to jump right into it, maybe I’ll turn to you for some – for some opening thoughts.

Kurt Campbell: Chris, thank you very much. And I very much appreciate the invitation and, I thought, your excellent lay down. And I do want to just take a moment, if it’s appropriate, to express just a – just a few words of gratitude just quickly as we get started.

First and foremost for me, I want to thank Ambassador Tomita. I cannot imagine a more steady hand who helped guide both the U.S. side and Japan at such a critical moment. It’s always the case that Japan sends their best here. Ambassador Tomita is no exception. And I watched him. These are high-wire acts, Chris. And, you know, it’s great to look back on Monday, but it was challenging, and a lot got done.

I also think we both recognize that the results of the last few months are based on the tireless work of many people, you know, what we broadly call alliance managers. I just came from lunch, Chris, with Rich Armitage. I wanted to pay my respects and thank him and make clear that what was achieved in the last little while was due in no small part to his role.

Chris, you know, one of the reasons I wanted to do this today, it is not lost on any of us that you were at the helm of much of what we were trying to do with Japan over the last two decades and more. And so you deserve enormous appreciation for the role that you’ve played.

So I would say most of this work was not accomplished in the last several months. It was a process of a painstaking number of many years, a recognition of quite a stark security environment that Japan is facing in Asia, a recognition that what Japan wanted to do was not only really invest in some independent capabilities but do that in the context of the U.S.-Japan security partnership. I think that was clear and impressive. We can talk more about the events themselves.

But I will also say what was important and impressive – I’m very used to Asia leaders coming to us on long flights from the East. What we had with Prime Minister Kishida, something that you did not mention, Chris, but one of the key topics of conversation was his report from Europe, the frontlines, with respect to what we are facing with respect to Ukraine. And frankly, he reported that in some of the conversations it was up to a Japanese leader to buck up a European leader. Stay the course. Stay firm. Stay true.

I would say I find that it’s almost difficult to imagine Japan playing such a leadership role. And I really was so impressed by what Prime Minister Kishida was able to do, both on this trip throughout Europe but in the United States. And I would just say simply, you know, Chris, you’ve done it many times. Ambassador, you know, Tomita has as well. When you’re there on the day and there’s the pomp and the fire in the fireplace and the warmth between the two leaders and it goes the way, you know, you hoped, it’s really quite something. And I have rarely had such a sense of elation about the celebration of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

So I’ll just stop there.

Mr. Johnstone: All right, thank you, Kurt.

Ambassador Tomita, any opening thoughts from you on this historic meeting?

Ambassador Koji Tomita: OK, thank you very much, Chris. It’s great to see you, although I’m not still used to seeing you in that capacity. (Laughs.) You should still be negotiating the joint statement until 2:00 in the morning.

But anyway, it’s great to see you and great to see Kurt. And thank you very much for your compliment.

Well, I know steady hand is a euphemism for doing nothing. But still – (laughs) – I think your kind comment touched me. And I’d like to reciprocate my gratitude to you for arranging such a successful PM’s visit.

And, you know, I’ve been involved in many, many leaders’ meetings between our two countries. But quite frankly, I think this one is one of the most consequential meetings that I had privilege of being associated with.

You know, the meeting took place at a very critical juncture in international relations. And quite frankly, I think our alliance has never been tested more seriously by the challenges ranging from, you know, Ukraine to DPRK, and at this critical juncture I think it was extremely gratifying to see our two countries showing the closest alignment of policies I’ve ever witnessed.

You know, just a few days before the leader meeting – leaders meeting we had a 2+2 and there I think Antony Blinken remarked he’s never seen anything like that – I mean, such a close alignment of policy between any two countries, and that’s my sentiment exactly. And this alignment exists not just in the area of security policy but also, you know, economic security, approach to the Global South, our strategy to resolve all the global challenges including climate change, and based on this alignment of policy both leaders demonstrated and placed the level of commitment to the test of resolving our common challenges.

And, you know, as Kurt mentioned, the prime minister came after trips to Europe where he discussed, you know, how he intends to conduct – you know, exercise responsibility during the G-7 process. He also – he came to Washington on the basis of the recent review of national defense policies and these things, again, underline the kind of commitment leader(s) brought to this meeting. So that made this meeting very special.

And, finally, I’d just like to touch on the personal element, you know. I saw, you know, genuine friendship, genuine rapport, very close communication between the two leaders and, you know, this personal relationship has been reflected in the hospitality extended by the U.S. side and, you know, the hospitality bit is very important.

I mean, this is an area we have – usually, ambassadors are most concerned about, and there are occasions in the past that I harassed Kurt – (laughs) – quite severely, but this time I didn’t, you know, harass Kurt as much as I used to. Maybe a little bit but not too much.

But I think this personal trust is very important because I think in the speech at SAIS prime minister said that, you know, Japan is alliance anchored – anchors all these diplomatic efforts. But all – you know, the personal trust between the leaders anchored the – our alliance.

So we are very fortunate to have this sort of personal trust existing between our two leaders as they take on the challenges ahead – G-7, you know, APEC, IPEF, Quad, and so on and so forth.

So, all in all, it was a splendid summit.

Mr. Campbell: Chris, let me just add one last thing, if I could, just to build on the very good words of Ambassador Tomita.

First of all, I completely agree. The warmth between the two leaders was clear. I know when the president feels comfortable and when he respects a leader, and the way that is reflected is that he asks that leader a lot of questions. And so he asked the prime minister about Europe, about China, about North Korea. He really was interested to hear his perspective.

And Prime Minister Kishida did not disappoint. He was practical but also, at times, philosophical. He offered a lot of really good advice, things that we’re still studying and take seriously.

I will also say it was not only the warmth between the two leaders but one of the things that, Chris, it’s probably not clear, we had our full Cabinet really engaging deeply over the last several days. And they were there in the expanded bilateral. And several jumped in on key points on economics. I’ve rarely seen our secretary of defense this passionate about a relationship. I think the ambassador would also agree with that. And so the – you know, it’s strong at the top, but strong throughout the various corridors of power in Washington, D.C. And I think it gives us a lot of – it gives us a lot of confidence to take on the challenges ahead.

Mr. Johnstone: That’s great. I appreciate that. Make sure of the atmospherics. And I think it emphasizes, underscores the importance of actually being able to meet and conduct diplomacy in person.

Let me pick up, if I could, on – I heard you mention China. Maybe I’ll direct this question first to Ambassador Tomita, and then to you, Kurt. So this was the first meeting of the two leaders, I believe, since each of them had their own respective engagements with Xi Jinping at the end of last year. And we’re entering what’s likely to be a consequential year in the relationship with China for both countries, particularly as we think about entering an election cycle on Taiwan and so forth.

I wonder if you could share a little bit about what was the nature of the – of the China discussion in the meeting? And sort of the tone of our efforts to coordinate policy on this – on this critical challenge? Ambassador, can I start with you on that, on the China discussion?

Amb. Tomita: Well, I think, as was the case of the leaders meeting in the recent past, I think China was a very important subject. And I think the leaders spent some time, you know, talking about, discussing the economic prospect for China, for instance. And also the challenges we face. There are certain aspects of Chinese behavior have been of very serious concern for our two countries.

But at the same time, I think there was a recognition that both of us need to strike the right balance between responding to the challenges posed by China and ensuring the stability in our respective relations with China. And so, there’s an explanation from both sides what sort of efforts they’re taking in this effort to strike the right balance. So overall, the discussions were very strategic, but also very informative, and very useful as we tried to address, you know, the biggest strategic challenge we both share.

Mr. Campbell: Chris, I would agree with that. And I think the ambassador laid it out clearly. I would simply say that the discussions – we’re not going to – the ambassador and I will not reveal some of the private discussions the two leaders had on, you know, exact specifics. But as the ambassador indicated, they had wide-ranging discussions around China. You know, what did we think that the challenges that China were facing ahead on – are facing ahead, on economic issues, on COVID, on, you know, how President Xi, his new government, and his new powers, how all of this would play out.

I think both leaders did concur that the challenges that they were faced – that China is facing are difficult. I think both leaders acknowledged that there was a wish in both countries to steady relations with China, more predictability and, you know, to keep the competition in peaceful lanes. And so I think what Ambassador Tomita indicated was a real harmony of views about both the risks and possibilities of China. And I think both leaders agreed that one of the most important elements of our diplomacy going forward was to ensure that each side had a completely clear understanding of the arenas and areas of engagement with China going forward. And President Biden has committed us to do exactly that.

Mr. Johnstone: That’s great, thanks. Certainly, the challenge of our time.

Maybe I’ll sort of splice in a question we have from our audience, and that relates to this on the economic security front: the semiconductor issue. Widely reported in the press that the United States is in ongoing talks with Japan, with the Netherlands about seeking alignment on export control policy with respect to semiconductors themselves, but also manufacturing equipment, software design, et cetera. Was this an issue that was discussed at the meeting? What might you be able to share on that particular issue, if I may ask? Let me start with you, if that’s OK.

Mr. Cambell: So, yes, Chris, as you rightly point out, this topic has been the subject of extensive expert-level and government-level discussions between each of these governments. I think we all acknowledge the importance of making sure that coordination is done effectively. And I think it would be fair to say that when President Biden raised the issue with Prime Minister Kishida, he indicated that he was studying it carefully and that he would be responding appropriately. And I think we are satisfied and believe that the consultations have been very productive.

Mr. Johnstone: Ambassador Tomita, is there anything you’d like to add on that particular subject?

Amb. Tomita: Well, I think Kurt was right in saying that we are on course for very close coordination on this issue.

The only thing I would add is this is a very complicated issue. And we need to work with the industry very closely because, you know, whatever we do it just really has to make, you know, business sense. Otherwise, the efforts will not be sustainable.

So the progress – I think we are making very careful progress looking at both the technical as well as the economic side of this issue. But as I – as Kurt said, I think we are looking forward to making progress – solid progress on this issue in the coming weeks.

Mr. Johnstone: Great. Thank you for that.

Let me turn for a moment to sort of the national security – traditional national security agenda. As I said in my sort of opening, really what Japan has announced in December, pathbreaking change that we haven’t seen really in the – in the entirety of the postwar period. And of course, President Biden in the joint statement that was issued after the meeting expressed strong endorsement of all this. I will say it does represent a vast agenda for Japan, right, ranging from investments in a wide range of defense capabilities; strengthening intelligence, the defense industrial base; standing up a new cyber incident response center, for example.

Just interested in, first, the leaders’ conversation about all this because it does include support for capabilities that Japan has not had before. But what could you share with us about priorities – particular priorities within that vast agenda for 2023? Ambassador, perhaps I could start with you on that question, if I may.

Amb. Tomita: Well, first of all, the significance of the decision taken by the prime minister is truly of historical order. I think prime minister himself said in his speech at the SAIS where he listed three or four major turning point in defense policy in the postwar years: you know, Prime Minister Yoshida’s decision to conclude security treaty, Prime Minister Kishi’s decision to upgrade treaty, and Prime Minister Abe’s – you know, the defense forces review, and this review. So I think the significance of this, it is very clear, as you said, I mean, in terms of defense spending as well as in terms of the new capabilities are – Japan is about to acquire.

But as you know, setting out a strategy is one thing, but implementing these strategies into practical policies are different. And that is something that the ministers considered and discussed on the 2+2 just a few days before the summit. So the leaders, you know, endorsed the direction set out by the ministers. But I think the leaders’ encouragement/support is very important because we have many priorities we need to work on. And it’s – I can tell you, I mean, it’s going to be an extremely challenging task to get all these things done.

Mr. Johnstone: Thank you, Ambassador.

Kurt, let me turn to you on that. I am struck by the full-throated endorsement from the president, from across the Cabinet, for this agenda with Japan; interested in sort of what the president had to say about all this in the meeting. And then, from your perspective, what do you see as particular priorities in this national-security agenda that Japan has set out for the alliance?


Mr. Campbell: Well, Chris, thank you.

Well, first of all, I was struck, frankly, by how passionate the president was in basically endorsing and supporting everything that the prime minister said. I mean, the prime minister is a somewhat soft-spoken, careful person. And I think President Biden really was very, again, almost passionate in his commitment to supporting Japan in the next little while.

I think, as you indicate, Chris, there are many things that are going to have to happen. Prime Minister Kishida has to go through a complex budget process. That’s really more about Japan domestically, but we will seek to support that wherever we can.

As you rightly point out, the 2+2 included some new innovations in command structures and in deployments between, you know, forward-deployed U.S. forces in Japan, that operate in and around Japan. Those – the work on that will begin immediately. Some of this is very challenging. You have been in the engine room at the Department of Defense where some of these changes have taken place. And so it’s one thing for the leaders to proclaim them. The action implementation can be extraordinarily detailed. So I think that work will get started quickly.

I will say that I believe over time, Chris, we are likely going to have to invest more people on both sides into the tasks of alliance management. And I am struck by that. I think we’re going to need to do that at the Department of Defense, at State, our colleagues in Hawaii at Pacific Command, and particularly in Tokyo, at the embassy. And I think the same thing is going to be true within the various responsible ministries and the like in Japan.

The tasks and the level of coordination have had such a basically jump up, just a step change, that it can no longer be managed by just a couple of people on the so-called Japan desk. We’re going to need to take the – we’re going to need to make some of the personnel and sort of organizational commitments that will put and bring more people into the effort.

Mr. Johnstone: Kurt, I couldn’t agree more. I think the changes that have been unveiled, both in Japan and at the 2+2, sort of point to an alliance agenda that’s one of integration, really in a way that hasn’t been true before.

Mr. Campbell: Yeah.

Mr. Johnstone: And that will demand new things of the United States as well. So I think that’s a point that’s very well taken.

Maybe just turning to a slightly different subject, and that’s the G-7 and the prime minister’s preparation for his leadership year. I wonder, Ambassador Tomita, perhaps to start with you, what message did the prime minister have for the president on his G-7 agenda, and in particular on this – on the prime minister’s very personally strongly held views on nuclear issues? What sort of message did he bring with him? And what did he seek the president’s support for in terms of the G-7 agenda this year?

Amb. Tomita: You know, as I said at the outset, this visit to Washington was the last leg of his trip to Europe and North America. So I think G-7 how to coordinate members’ position on various issues was very – the main theme of this trip this time. And as far as G-7 is concerned, you know, there’s still – we have to go through all these preparatory processes. You know the political directors are going to work on many fronts.

But basically, I think there are two things that will come out of this summit in May. The one is the G-7 members’ unwavering commitment to rule of law. I think that’s, of course, includes Ukraine, but also I think the leaders are going to address any other, you know, unilateral attempt to change the status quo that might happen anywhere else. So rule of law, I think, is one of the main themes of the meeting.

The other theme is – will be, you know, engagement with the global south. And I think this will be reflected – you know, G-7 countries reaching out to the – all these in the global south. At the same time, the members are trying to bring tangible benefits to the global south to give leadership in tackling the various global issues, like climate change, food, energy crisis, and so on and so forth. So rule of law and engagement with the global south will be the two main, you know, themes of the summit.

And, of course, the significance of the prime minister choosing Hiroshima as a venue, you know, cannot be understated. I mean, he has a very strong commitment to the cause of creating a world free from nuclear weapons. But at the same time, his ideal is, you know, also grounded on realism. So I think he’s looking forward to practical discussions, you know, trying to chart out the path to this world, while being mindful of the current – the challenges. For instance, posed by Russia, for instance. So I think the nuclear issue will be a very important part of the discussions in Hiroshima.

Mr. Campbell: Chris, I’ll just jump in a second on this. I very much like Ambassador Tomita’s answer. I would simply say, just for context, you know, we have a lot of different meetings. Obviously, the United States will be hosting APEC later this year. There are meetings in the G-20. These are all important institutions. But because of, as the ambassador indicated, what’s happened with Russia and some other challenges, some of these larger institutions are harder to operate in right now.

And one of the benefits of the G-7 is that you’ve got a group of likeminded states that really can combine forces on shared challenges. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re so excited to be going to Japan for the G-7. And I will say, as Ambassador Tomita indicated, the prime minister took a careful opportunity to brief the president on his goals and objectives for the G-7. And the president welcomed the program in Hiroshima. We’re looking forward to that. I think it’s very important. It has enormous historical resonance and significance. We accept that, and we understand it.

It is also the case that in addition to the issues that the prime minister – that Ambassador Tomita indicated the prime minister raised, he also said it was going to be important to remind the G-7 not to flag in Ukraine. And I think that will be a continuing issue that will be pointed out. And also, he did indicate to the president, as a representative from the Indo-Pacific, he intended to make the argument, the case of the significance and the important focus of other countries in Europe and elsewhere on the dynamic region that is the Indo-Pacific. And I think that’s something that we welcome. And, again, as you’ve heard, Chris, in a number of venues, we’ve sought to build those links between the transatlantic and the transpacific communities to focus on common challenges and to embrace common opportunities as well.

Mr. Johnstone: Yeah. That’s great. I was going to ask you next sort of what the discussion between the two leaders was one – was on Ukraine. And you’ve sort of addressed that. Did the president have a specific ask of Prime Minister Kishida, Kurt, with respect to support?

Mr. Campbell: Look, Chris, I got to tell you what is changing now in the relationship. Like, in the past often was sometimes, you know, one would have to say “please.” And Prime Minister Kishida has a game plan and is already engaged deeply on issues in Ukraine, and had engaged deeply with European countries about the plans they had. And so I fully expect that, at appropriate time, Japan will be rolling out specific plans to support Ukraine in a variety of ways. They are active in many of the contact group discussions about support for Ukraine. And they’re just a key member. I don’t think we’re in an environment any longer where the United States has to ask or cajole Japan. Japan is stepping up, following its own course. And we’re just grateful that that course runs so closely to ours.

Mr. Johnstone: Yeah, very much agree with that. The prime minister said in his speech, and I had been saying for some time as well, that really Japan led Asia in the response to Ukraine, to ensure that the response to the invasion was a global one and not simply a regional one.

Mr. Campbell: Yes. And, Chris, can I just say one thing on this? I’m sure it’s been raised a couple of times. Ambassador Tomita, we were both – I went to the speech. I was pretty tired. Hadn’t had an enormous amount of sleep in the days before. But I went to the speech not only to pay respects at SAIS, but also to listen. And it is a remarkable speech. It is not a – just a, you know, touch lightly on the issues. It lays out a clear, demonstrable philosophy of what Japan proposes to do, how to work with the United States, but also the steps that Japan is going to want to take and undertake independently. I think it’s one of the most visionary statements of a Japanese leader I can remember.

Mr. Johnstone: Yeah. It truly was a powerful speech. Ambassador Tomita, anything you’d like to say on either – with respect to the prime minister’s speech or on this Ukraine question in particular?

Amb. Tomita: Well – (laughs) – it’s kind of surprising, but this is the first – prime minister’s first visit to D.C. I mean, he’s been in that post for more than one year. So apart from the leaders meeting, I think he made the speech at SAIS. But at the same time, he had breakfast with the vice president. And also, he had dinner with the group of members of Congress, senators and congressmen and congresswomen, which was also very useful. So all in all, this is, you know, very full-fledged program for the prime minister. And, you know, he will come back. And there will be an opportunity for CSIS to host the prime minister in the future. So please be patient next time. (Laughs.)

Mr. Johnstone: (Laughs.) No, certainly it was a pleasure to be able to join the speech myself at SAIS. What an event that was.

Well, we’re getting to the end of our time here. I did want to give you each the opportunity to offer any sort of final – any final thoughts. It is such a remarkable time in the relationship. Frankly, as I think back on my own time when I first started working on this relationship in the Pentagon in the early 2010s, it would have been unimaginable to see some of the things transpire that we’re now seeing today. So quite a gratifying set of events. But, Kurt, any closing thoughts before we – before we wrap up here?

Mr. Cambell: So, Chris, the reason I liked your question so much was that it reflects a reality of life. A lot of times after a momentous set of achievements and, frankly, those achievements, really, that work and the accolades are due to Japanese friends, and we’re supporting and working with them but cannot say enough positive.

But there is sometimes a tendency to lag and to relax, and the reason I appreciated your questioning it reflects a deep wisdom that you’ve experienced yourself that, if anything, after a successful visit you have to pedal harder and you’ve got more work to do.

So we came back to the office today on Monday, or Tuesday, with a clear to-do list, which is longer than this table, and we’re going to have to follow up and take those steps and to build in all the areas that you’ve laid out.

What I will tell you that I find quite reassuring is Japanese colleagues have made their own list and we’re matching up and figuring out what steps that we need to do independently and what can we do together.

I would say that in a disharmonious world, in a world that has just extraordinary uncertainty and shocks and threats abound, the fact that powerful, long-standing friends can, basically, consummate a new period in our relationship in such a consequential way it is gratifying and it does make you feel more optimistic about an uncertain future.

So I’ll just leave it at that, Chris. Thank you.

Mr. Johnstone: Great. Thank you, Kurt.

Ambassador Tomita, any sort of final thoughts before we close?

Amb. Tomita: (Laughs.) Well, apart from the prime minister, I had a visit of five Cabinet ministers and two Diet delegations in the past few weeks. So I feel like I have done the year’s work for the first two weeks of this year. (Laughs.)

But, I mean, seriously, I mean, I said the meeting was very consequential but the year 2023 is going to be very consequential, and just a very – I find it very fortunate that we have managed to build – solidify the personal relationship between the two leaders, which is, you know, really needed to take on this very challenging year.

So I very much look forward to working with the friends in the White House and State Department, the U.S. administration, to continue our strong partnership so that we can make this year a good year for both of us.

Mr. Johnstone: That’s great. Yeah, it is – I mean, the downside of having a long list of things to do is that it’s a long list of things to do, but it speaks to the breadth and the strength of the relationship.

So my congratulations to you both on wrapping up that series of business, and thanks to you both sincerely – Ambassador Tomita, Dr. Campbell – for taking the time this afternoon. I think this has been enlightening for the group online and I very much appreciate your time. Thank you.