U.S. and Japan’s new defense strategy sends stark warning to China

President Biden will welcome Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House on Friday, a meeting intended to signal a more confrontational approach to China as Tokyo’s defense turns south toward the Taiwan Strait.

Kishida is pushing for a larger defense role for Japan in the Indo-Pacific region as his country and the U.S. face down threats on multiple fronts: a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a nuclear-armed North Korea and Russia’s continued assault on Ukraine.

Before Kishida’s visit, the U.S. and Japan agreed on Wednesday to upgrade their security cooperation by equipping Tokyo with long-range missiles and refitting a U.S. Marine unit in Japan to confront Beijing’s military buildup in the region — the latest move by the administration to achieve Washington’s long-held desire to focus more on the East and South Asia.

“Japan is doubling down on both itself and the United States. Tokyo is building some more independent capabilities, but it is also deepening the U.S.-Japan alliance. That should be a clear sign to China,” said Zachary Cooper, a senior fellow who studies U.S. defense strategy in Asia at the American Enterprise Institute. The agenda “is being driven from Tokyo, rather than Washington, which is incredibly important as a sign of sustainability and a healthy alliance relationship.”

The sit-down is the leaders’ first since Kishida announced historic reforms to his country’s national security strategy in December, shifting Japan away from its pacifist stance in the wake of World War II and toward closer cooperation with Biden’s quest to constrain China.

Kishida’s government vowed to double his country’s defense spending to 2% of its gross domestic product by 2027, up from about 1%. Based on current GDP, the move would make Japan’s military budget the third largest in the world, behind the U.S. and China. The new strategy also calls for acquiring long-range missile systems that would enable Tokyo to reach targets in China and North Korea in response to a potential attack.

The Ukraine conflict has magnified global anxiety about a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan and motivated Kishida’s push to reform Japan’s defense approach, said Chris Johnstone, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Biden National Security Council official.

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