Mr. Kishida Goes to Washington: The Right Way and the Wrong Way

Dr. Gerald Curtis
Burgess Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University

Publications Mr. Kishida Goes to Washington: The Right Way and the Wrong Way

Dr. Gerald Curtis, Burgess Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University

Prime Minister Kishida briefly met U.S. President Biden at the COP 26 World Leaders Summit in Glasgow, Scotland on November 2, 2021. (Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)

It has been 76 years since World War II, 69 years since Japan regained its sovereignty and 61 years since Japan signed a revised mutual security treaty with the United States. Now that Japan has the world’s third largest economy, a powerful military with capabilities and missions no one would have imagined even a few decades ago, and a rock-solid alliance with the United States, you might think it is time for Japan to dispense with the usual practice of having its newly elected prime minister fly off to Washington at the earliest possible moment to meet the US President, notwithstanding the lack of preparation for a substantive discussion. You would be wrong.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida travelled to Glasgow to make a brief appearance at the Climate Change Conference (COP26), the main purpose of which seems to have been to shake hands with President Biden, remind him that it is customary since the Ron-Yasu relationship between Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and President Ronald Reagan for the President and Prime Minister to put each other on a first name basis, and say that he can’t wait to go to DC to have a chat.

But what does he want to chat with Joe about? Nobody seems to know. And the Japanese mass media doesn’t seem to care. What they want to know is whether Fumio is going to get inside the White House before the end of the year, and before Thanksgiving if possible.

One has to wonder whether the prime minister’s office understands that it is endeavoring to wrangle an invitation for a substance-free courtesy call on a US President who is desperately trying to deal with a vaccine mandate backlash, an internal feud in his party that threatens to derail his Build Back Better effort to be the Franklin D. Roosevelt of the 21st century, and who needs to use as much time as he can piece together to get out on the road to sell his $1 trillion infrastructure program to the public. You might think that the Japanese would recognize that the spectacle of their prime minister practically begging for an appointment with President Biden for no compelling reason would be seen as rather ridiculous, and indeed humiliating. Again, you would be wrong.

Kishida is a throwback to a time when the purpose of these immediate post-election summits was to demonstrate Japan’s fidelity to the US alliance and the continuing US commitment to Japan’s security. As Japan’s longest serving foreign minister, from 2012 to 2017, Kishida knows that these commitments are not in doubt – in the United States, in Japan, in China or anywhere else. What is needed today is a substantive, frank, and well-planned US-Japan summit to discuss how to deal with China, how to further US-Japan technological cooperation, and how to strengthen regional and global multilateral institutions and trade, security, and other international regimes. If Prime Minister Kishida has strong views on these and other critical bilateral, regional, and global issues, he is so far doing a good job of keeping them secret.

In the end Biden may agree to invite Kishida to the White House since it seems so important to the Japanese government. But isn’t it time for Japan to stop thinking of these quickly arranged and superficial dialogues with the US President as photo ops intended mainly to show the Japanese public that their new prime minister has got command of the all-important relationship with the United States? Fumio, you can do better.

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