The end of cheque-book diplomacy?

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 17 Jan 2023

The visit by the prime minister of Japan to Washington last week may mark the end of US cheque-book diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region, with Japan committing greater resources to its own defence.


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida paid an official visit to the US this month, his first since becoming head of the Japanese government last year. During the visit, he met US President Joe Biden at the White House on 13 January in what was the two men’s second encounter. The first took place during Biden’s visit to Japan in May last year.

Between the two meetings, Japan released a new National Security Strategy that has heralded a radical rethink of the country’s strategic doctrine in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions and one aligned with the US National Security Strategy that was released on 12 October.

Prior to the US-Japan summit last Friday, the two countries also convened the 2023 US-Japan Security Consultative Committee on 11 January.

The US side was chaired by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa and Defence Minister Hamada Yasukazu chaired the Japanese delegation.

 In the meantime, the two countries have also signed the Framework Agreement on Space Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies for Peaceful Purposes. The signing ceremony was attended by Kishida and Blinken and the latter’s Japanese counterpart.

In welcoming Kishida to the Oval Office last week, Biden told reporters that the US and Japan were modernising their military alliance. Japan’s prime minister stressed that his country had decided to reinforce “fundamentally” its defence capabilities, including by possessing what he termed “counter-strike capabilities.”

After the meeting at the White House, the two sides released a joint statement in which they agreed to oppose “strongly” any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion anywhere in the world. This is an implied reference to Ukraine, Taiwan, and the various territorial disputes between the People’s Republic of China, on the one hand, and Japan and other East Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, among others, on the other.

The statement reaffirmed the US commitment to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with Japan, making particular reference to Article 5. It also made clear that this article applies to the Senkaku Islands, which are disputed between Japan and China.

According to the Washington statement, the two countries say that they have aligned their “collective force posture” and deterrence capabilities in order to meet “new and emerging threats.” They also emphasise their encouragement of the peaceful resolution of “cross-Strait issues,” a reference to the security situation in the Strait of Taiwan.

As far as the question of Ukraine is concerned, the statement reiterates the known positions of the two governments, mainly to continue to impose sanctions on Russia and to provide “unwavering support” to Ukraine. It is no surprise that the statement does not touch on any peaceful resolution to the senseless war that is now raging in Ukraine.

Globally, the US and Japan have pledged to drive sustainable progress towards achieving net zero carbon emissions, develop the multilateral banks to better address global challenges, and “improve creditor coordination” with the aim of providing debt relief, though without specifying which countries would benefit or how and when.

Probably, the issue of debt relief will come up at the next summit meeting of the G7 group of countries under Japan’s presidency that is scheduled to meet in Japan next summer.

The statement, drawing on the results of the visits by Biden to South Korea and Japan last May, commits the three countries to strengthening “vital trilateral cooperation.”

The joint statement of the US and Japan heralds a new chapter in the post-World War II security relationship between Washington and Tokyo. Their adversaries, without singling them out, are undoubtedly China, North Korea, and “to a lesser degree” Russia.

According to unnamed US officials quoted in the Washington Post on 10 January, Japan is deepening its strategic partnership with the US, a development that comes in parallel with the beefing up of the US Marine Corps on Okinawa with advanced military capabilities such as anti- ship missiles by 2025.

To US officials, Japan is aligning itself with Washington and Tokyo is prepared to play a more substantive role in its own defence. In the past, the Americans believed that Japan depended on what they called “cheque-book diplomacy,” in other words a complete reliance on US forces stationed in Japan.

Kushida had previously promised Biden during their 2022 meeting in Tokyo that he would increase Japan’s military budget to two per cent of the country’s GDP, making it the third-largest military budget in the world. Tokyo has already decided to build its own long-range missiles and to buy US-made Tomahawk missiles, the objective being to increase the counterstrike capabilities of the Japanese military.

As a result of the visit by the prime minister of Japan to Washington last week, we are witnessing a radical change in the strategic equation in Northeast Asia, the Asia-Pacific, and the Indo-Pacific to the advantage of the US and its allies in these regions.

The three regions have become the centre of fierce competition between China and the US and the member countries of the Trilateral Alliance with the US – Japan and South Korea – and North Korea that is allied with China.


The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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