National Security & Defense

Why Japan’s Next Prime Minister Matters

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (top) operates with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier JS Izumo in the South China Sea in 2019. (Courtesy JMSDF/US Navy/Handout via Reuters)
Maintaining the alliance with America as an anchor of regional stability will increasingly depend on leadership from Tokyo, not Washington.

Japan’s leading political party, the right-of-center Liberal Democrats, will be choosing a new prime minister starting on September 17, as the current PM, Yoshihidi Suga, has announced he will step aside. The person the Liberal Democrats choose, and who is then likely to win the next general election in Japan later this year, will hold in his hands the future of the U.S.–Japan alliance; even the future of Asia.

This is because, for the first time since World War II, it will be Japan that has to take the lead in determining whether the United States’ 70-year-old alliance with an Asian democracy continues to protect the freedom and prosperity of both — or whether the U.S. and Japan stand meekly by while China establishes its hegemony over the Indo-Pacific region.

Until now the dynamic of U.S.–Japan relations has always been the U.S. pushing Japan to take a more active role in defending itself and exercising more influence in Asia, with Japan sometimes reluctantly following. The Afghanistan debacle has demonstrated to friend and foe alike that, faced with problematic overseas commitments, the Biden administration’s first instinct is to cut and run. Now it’s going to be Tokyo that will need to keep the alliance on track. It will need to compel Washington to do the right thing, especially in dealing with the China threat.

Fortunately, Suga’s predecessor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, made it clear to Japanese public opinion that the time had come for Japan to take a more active role in the projection of its interests and in its own self-defense. That included increasing Japan’s defense budget to the highest level since World War II; it included taking a more active and visible role alongside the U.S. in pushing back against Chinese hegemony in Asia.

Abe found an enthusiastic supporter for his more activist Japan in President Trump. In Trump and Abe’s hands the so-called Quad partnership of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India became more than just a good idea but a platform for sound strategic planning — as a “strategic diamond” of maritime democracies, in Abe’s phrase, that could sustain a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (another favorite Abe expression). Abe also encouraged increasing defense-technology cooperation between the U.S. and Japan. The prospect of the two most advanced tech economies working together on the weapons systems of the future is a heady one — one that scares Beijing as much as it heartens our other Asian allies.

Then came Abe’s illness and resignation in June 2020, and Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. Abe’s departure didn’t change things on the Japanese side. It was always understood that Suga was largely a caretaker figure and that whoever now steps into his place — whether it’s foreign minister Kishida or former defense minister Kono or the popular Ishiba — wouldn’t significantly change the robust pro-U.S. defense posture taken by Abe.

By contrast, what’s happening with the Biden administration is what Japanese leaders feared with the departure of Trump: a return to the Obama era, when “leading from behind” and “strategic patience” were treated as virtues instead of signs of an American failure of nerve.

Gaiatsu is a Japanese word meaning “pressure from one country on another to change its mind or direction.” In the past, Japan was the recipient of gaiatsu diplomacy from the U.S.; for keeping U.S. military bases in Okinawa, for example, or sending military personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it’s up to the next Japanese PM to practice gaiatsu to make sure Biden’s team does the right thing, not just talk about it, on issues including defending Taiwan and pushing back on China’s claims to the South China Sea — or resisting Beijing’s similar claims, which will be a direct threat to Japanese sovereignty, on the East China Sea.

What’s Japan’s leverage in the relationship? If Japan senses that the U.S. is going wobbly, it may decide that our long-standing extended deterrence, meaning our nuclear umbrella, is an empty promise. Japan may then go nuclear itself — which Japanese officials have hinted more than once they are willing to do if push comes to shove, and which technically could be done in a matter of months, rather than years.

This would likely trigger a nuclear arms race across the region, starting with South Korea and even possibly Taiwan — a scenario that no one wants to contemplate. In any case, maintaining the U.S.–Japan relationship as an anchor of regional peace and stability — and securing the Indo-Pacific from Chinese domination — will increasingly depend on leadership from Tokyo, not Washington. Whoever becomes the next prime minister has an historic mission to fulfill — one that’s vital to both of our countries.

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the author of, most recently, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2021).

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