International challenges demand action
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International challenges demand action

It's not often an American ally addresses the US Congress, but when they do, it's time to listen. That was the case on April 12 when Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke before a joint session of Congress in Washington to both thank America for its post-war friendship and to reaffirm the continuing political and strategic partnership between Japan and the US.

"China's current external stance and military actions present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge, not only to the peace and security of Japan but to the peace and stability of the international community at large," Mr Kishida warned. "While such a challenge from China continues, our commitment to upholding a free and open international order based on the rule of law, as well as peace, will continue to be the defining agenda."

All certainly true, but there are a few unspoken issues here. Japanese leaders traditionally are far more politically circumspect and diplomatically elliptical even when speaking to friends concerning the most pressing challenges. Mr Kishida was clear and unequivocal.

Building on the close political relationship between former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former President Donald Trump, the geopolitical side of this vital trans-Pacific relationship has reached new heights with Mr Kishida (who, by the way, was Abe's Foreign Minster). What has also changed Japan's political views has been the clear and menacing strategic tilt in East Asia from an assertive People's Republic of China (PRC) and an increasingly hostile North Korea.

Provocative ballistic missile firings by the quaintly titled Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as well as the Ukraine war, have jolted the region's attention from Seoul to Tokyo and Manila.

As Mr Kishida told Congress, "North Korea's nuclear and missile program is a direct threat…North Korea's provocations have an impact beyond the region."

He added significantly, "It has also exported its ballistic missiles to support Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, greatly increasing the suffering of the Ukrainian people." He continued, "As I often say, Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow." He stressed, "Japan has transformed its national security strategy. Uncertainty about the future stability of the Indo-Pacific region caused us to change our policies and our very mindset."

Japan has also openly addressed the long-standing thorny issue of Japan's military spending: too little for an economy and country Japan's size, but historically rationalised in the post-war era as acceptable given the longstanding defence treaty with the US. Thus, for the longest time, even going back to the Reagan administration, Japan was comfortable spending only 1% of GDP on its defence despite polite chiding from Washington; yet given Japan's economic strength, that 1%, few realized, remained quite formidable.

That's now changed. "In 2022, we announced that we would secure a substantial increase of our defence budget by FY 2027 to 2% of GDP," Mr Kishida announced, adding, "Today, the deterrence that our alliance provides is stronger than ever."

Viewing the role of American leadership internationally, Mr Kishida stated, "Although the world looks to your leadership, the US should not be expected to do it all, unaided and on your own. Yes, the leadership of the United States is indispensable." He added realistically, "Without the presence of the United States, how long before the Indo-Pacific would face even harsher realities?"

Using a metaphor, Mr Kishida stressed, "On the spaceship called 'Freedom and Democracy,' Japan is proud to be your shipmate. We are on deck, we are on task. And we are ready to do what is necessary ... The democratic nations of the world must have all hands on deck."

He stressed, "I am here to say that Japan is already standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States. You are not alone. We are with you."

Shortly after his address to Congress, Mr Kishida joined President Joe Biden and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr for a trilateral summit to reinforce security ties, especially countering Beijing's aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Mr Biden stressed, "The United States' defence commitments to Japan and to the Philippines are ironclad."

Hopefully, but these events must be viewed in the context of nervous unease concerning US leadership. Leadership is a proven quality, not a talking point. Failure to maintain serious US deterrence in the midst of unserious debate and theatrics, political unreliability facing the Ukraine war and Israel's war in Gaza brings the Biden administration tiptoeing to the brink of wider conflicts.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues. He is the author of 'Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China'.

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