As President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met privately in Tokyo last year, Biden delivered a message that was as strategic as it was genuine.
US support for a more assertive defense and security posture from Japan was understood, but Biden made it clear that if there was anything he could offer to bolster – or provide cover for – that effort, it should be considered on the table.
Eight months later, the product of that one-on-one meeting was marked by another. This time the backdrop was the Oval Office.
“Let me be crystal clear,” Biden said as he sat beside Kishida surrounded by cameras. “The United States is fully, thoroughly, completely committed to the alliance.”
For Biden and his national security team, Kishida’s visit serves as equal parts culmination and continuation of a foundational effort pursued since the opening days of the administration. It’s one that extends beyond a single bilateral relationship at a moment when geopolitical tensions and risks have converged with an approach to reshape the security posture of allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
China has rapidly expanded its military capabilities, while also being increasingly clear about its territorial ambitions. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine set off the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. Throughout, North Korea has rapidly accelerated missile tests and its own provocative actions.
For Biden, a geopolitical climate trending toward instability has created an opportunity to support allies in their efforts to build out their security and defense capabilities – one that national security adviser Jake Sullivan framed as a new version of a central concept of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy .
“For Reagan, it was peace through American strength,” Sullivan said in an interview with CNN. “For Biden, it’s peace through American and allied strength.”
As the administration enters its third year, the groundwork laid has shown tangible, if sometimes uneven, advances with Germany, Australia and, most definitively, Japan.
In December, Kishida unveiled a new national security plan that signals the country’s biggest military buildup since World War II, doubling defense spending and veering from its pacifist constitution in the face of growing threats from regional rivals, including China.
The decision marked a dramatic shift for both the nation and the US security alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.
“We believed that we could get significant movement, but I don’t think that anybody thought it would be this far, this fast,” a senior administration official told CNN.
It also came at a moment when Kishida faces his own political challenges at home – challenges Biden was more than willing to try and help assuage.
Kishida’s visit served as a window into two years of carefully calibrated work by Biden’s team, senior administration officials said – one that created an environment for dramatic shifts to bolster US alliances at an increasingly fraught moment.
“We began laying the foundation for all of this long before Putin crossed the border of Ukraine,” Sullivan told CNN. “Above all, this has been a huge diplomatic priority.”
It was a directive handed down by Biden at the start of the administration, with Sullivan as its central architect. The administration sought to build on existing alliances, both bilaterally and regionally, as officials urged their counterparts to accelerate spending and updates to their own security and defense spending strategies.
They would ensure that it was understood that the US would be there to assist in any process undertaken, whether through boosts to defense capabilities, shifts in US force posture or Biden himself, with a clear statement of support, political cover or – in the case of Kishida – a coveted White House meeting.
The convergence of geopolitical events dovetailing with that strategy has reshaped security strategies in ways that in previous years may have unsettled allies concerned about increasing regional tensions, or unsettled adversaries willing to match action with escalation.
Yet the approach has managed to navigate a new willingness to test prior regional risk assessments. That hasn’t been lost on allies, Sullivan said.
“We’re giving them the confidence that if they go out on a limb, we are not going to saw off that limb,” Sullivan said.
In the days before Kishida’s visit, the US and Japan announced a significant strengthening of their military relationship and upgrade of the US military’s force posture in the region, including the stationing of a newly revamped Marine unit with advanced intelligence, surveillance capabilities and the ability to fire anti-ship missiles.
It is one of the most significant adjustments to US military force posture in the region in years, one official said, underscoring the Pentagon’s desire to shift from the wars of the past in the Middle East to the region of the future in the Indo-Pacific .
It also sent an unequivocal signal about the durability of US support for Japan’s strategic shift – one that administration officials made clear was a critical component of their regional strategy for years to come.
“When you think about it in terms of longer-term impact, this is a huge increase in net security capability in a place that (is) geographically important,” the official said.
For a president and an administration intensely focused on China, tending to – and building up – the long-standing critical alliance with Japan was a focal point from the start. Biden invited Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, for the first foreign leader visit of his presidency.
The decision was made to elevate the Quad – the informal alliance made up of the US, Japan, India and Australia – to the leader level. The US included Japan in consultations over the Indo-Pacific strategy. Administration officials have looked for places across economic and technological sectors to find new areas of cooperation, officials said.
But if China’s actions had started the steady shift in Japan’s overall posture, Russia’s actions accelerated it to a different level.
Japan, throughout the US effort to rally allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has served as a steadfast partner. Kishida has been explicit about his views of Russia’s actions not just in the context of Europe, but also for the Indo-Pacific.
“I myself have a strong sense of urgency that Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” Kishida said in a keynote address in Singapore last June that offered broad outlines of the security strategy shift he was weighing.
By the time Kishida met Biden in November in Cambodia, he would lay out the specific details to the US president during another one-on-one meeting.
He also made it clear that he would take Biden up on his offer during their private meeting in Tokyo. The Biden administration would need to immediately put out a statement in support of the proposal.
Biden agreed, and the day Kishida publicly announced his plans, an official statement from Sullivan followed in short order, calling it a “bold and historic step.”
Kishida also requested an invitation to the White House shortly after the December 16 announcement.
On January 3, the White House publicly announced plans for Kishida’s visit.
Less than two weeks later, Biden was waiting outside the White House as Kishida pulled up in a black SUV.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve been closer to Japan in the United States,” Biden said shortly afterward, as the two sat together in the Oval Office.