Stronger relations seen in past year since Biden entered White House

The name says it all.

Japan’s budget for hosting United States forces in Japan had been known for decades as omoiyari yosan, which means a “considerate budget”. Now the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has decided to call it “alliance-solidifying” spending.

In response to calls from the administration of US President Joe Biden for Japan to foot more of the bill, Tokyo has agreed to increase its share for five years starting from the next fiscal year, according to Japan’s public broadcaster NHK. Japan will begin covering the costs of bilateral joint exercises, paying a total of 1.55 trillion yen ($9.3 billion), which means an annual average increase by $1.8 billion from the 2021 fiscal year.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said the name of its budget for hosting about 50,000 US troops was changed because the two countries agreed to build a foundation to enhance the alliance.

The past year has witnessed a stronger US-Japan alliance following Biden’s entry into the White House on Jan 20, 2021.

During the four years of the administration of his predecessor, Donald Trump, the relationship was strained. Trump demanded that Japan increase the amount of the host-nation financial support while threatening to withdraw US forces from Japan-he even considered the termination of the US-Japan military alliance.

With Biden in office, the bilateral relationship is moving forward on all fronts.

On their first trips abroad since taking office, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met their counterparts in Tokyo. And in April then Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga became the first foreign leader to visit Biden at the White House.

The militaries of the two countries took part in joint military exercises that were bilateral or also involved other countries throughout 2021. These drills highlight how far the alliance has come.

For example, the two countries held the Orient Shield 21-2 in June and July-the largest US Army and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force bilateral field training exercise in Japan. For the first time ever a US Army High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and a Japanese Multiple Launch Rocket System were involved in a joint live fire exercise in Japan.

The Japanese and US militaries have drawn up a draft operation plan on building an attack base along the Nansei Islands, a chain stretching southwest from the Japanese prefectures of Kagoshima and Okinawa, in the event of a “Taiwan contingency”, Kyodo News agency reported.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has responded that China never allows any country to meddle in the Taiwan question and interfere in China’s internal affairs under any pretext or in any form.

“No one should underestimate the strong resolution, determination and capability of the Chinese people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said at a news conference on Dec 24.

Regarding economic issues, the US has made an offer to Japan aimed at resolving disputes over tariffs imposed on Japanese steel and aluminum during the Trump administration, according to Bloomberg News.

The proposed truce came, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said, as the Biden administration aims to sign what could prove a “very powerful” economic framework agreement with Asian nations in 2022.

The first series of meetings under the US-Japan Partnership on Trade is expected early this year.

Tokyo and Washington have agreed to work together on a “Japan-US common global agenda” for trade and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The move is an apparent attempt by the Biden administration to establish a new multilateral trade framework under US leadership.

So what are the prospects for Japan-US relations in 2022?

Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the Kishida administration will maintain former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic policies, of which Japan’s alliance with the US is the cornerstone.

How to develop a balanced relationship with China while strengthening the Japan-US alliance will be a touchstone of Kishida’s diplomacy, said Pang Zhongpeng, an associate researcher at the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Kishida, who was the foreign minister in the Abe administration, is thought to know well that the Japan-US alliance should not be enhanced at the cost of China’s strategic interests, said Sun Wenzhu, an assistant research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies.

Tokyo is facing an uphill battle to secure Kishida’s first visit as prime minister to Washington, Japanese weekly Nikkei Asia said.

Japan has agreed to host a meeting of the “Quad” group involving the US, Australia and India in 2022, White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said at an event hosted by the US Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank, in November.

Tokyo has explored the idea of hosting the second in-person Quad summit, and hopes to convene it as early as this spring.

If the Quad summit takes place, it would be a chance for Biden to make his first visit to Japan as US president.

A virtual meeting of Japanese and US foreign and defense ministers will be held on Friday. Japan’s foreign and defense ministers had canceled their visits to Washington for the “two-plus-two” talks due to the rampant Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus in the US.

A step toward this was taken in December by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party with its review of the country’s National Security Strategy for the first time since it was adopted in 2013, including the possibility of introducing enemy base strike capabilities, Kyodo News reported. The National Security Strategy was made following the example of the United States.

The Pentagon has said that it will release a new National Defense Strategy early this year after the release of a new National Security Strategy by the White House.

Japan aligning itself even more closely with the US and departing from its long-held pacifist stance will only worsen the environment for Tokyo’s diplomatic and security policies, said Sun from the China Institute of International Studies.