DPG Policy Brief

Japan’s Decisive Alignment with the West

Date: April 26, 2024
Japan has long considered itself to be an intrinsic part of the US-led West, albeit one located in Asia.  Under the leadership of PM Fumio Kishida, Japan has now pivoted even more decisively towards full alignment with the economic and security interests of the West. 

In this Policy Brief, the author traces the evolution of this change, culminating in the declaration of a Japan-US global partnership during Kishida’s state visit to Washington D.C. from April 9-12, 2024.

The purpose of Kishida’s US visit was to ensure that the US remains engaged in East Asia and, towards that end, expanding Japan’s own engagement for greater burden sharing under US leadership.  In the process, the Japanese leader unequivocally identified China’s external stance and military actions as presenting an unprecedented strategic challenge to the international community, while calling on the US to continue playing its leadership role in world affairs even as Japan transforms itself from a reticent to a committed ally.  The Japan-US joint statement lays out an expansive vision for the alliance, with expanded defence and security cooperation at the core of a global partnership.

Former PM Shinzo Abe’s strategic vision had focused on gradually moving Japan towards a normal nation status, creating a more nuanced posture for Japan, strongly linked to the US alliance but with the ability to play a leading role in Asia and the world as a top tier power.  Kishida’s approach, which maintains Abe’s focus on Japan assuming greater responsibility for its own defence and security, is marked by an even greater dependence on the US, and also prioritises the interests of Europe and the collective West. 

The author observes that the newly defined US-Japan partnership vision is ambitious and potentially path-breaking, but several major factors will have to be managed to ensure its realisation.  Leading among these is Japan’s own ability to sustain the US commitment to Asia and pay the associated costs, materially, militarily and economically.  Looking ahead, the nature of command relationships between the Japanese and US militaries will pose challenges.  Moving up the scale from being a forward basing US ally to a joint operational and fighting ally will require a major change in Japan’s pacifist outlook, not least as any one of regional contingencies in East Asia may end up involving Japan in conflict.   

It also remains an open question whether Europe can make any meaningful security commitment to the Indo-Pacific, something that Japan’s insertion into the conflict in Europe appears to anticipate. 

In conclusion, the author notes that the expansion of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision to one of becoming a global partner of the US in bringing about a Free and Open International Order may prove to be over-ambitious, given Japan’s lingering pacifist outlook and its near total dependence on the US  for its own security.  Meanwhile, Japan’s posture under Kishida will have repercussions for its image and influence with the emerging and developing nations of the Global South

To read this DPG Policy Brief Volume IX, Issue 12, please click “Japan’s Decisive Alignment with the West”.