Tokyo CNN  — 

Spiraling geopolitical tensions have pushed the world to a “historic turning point” and are forcing Japan to change its defense posture, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told CNN Sunday ahead of a closely watched summit with US President Joe Biden next week.

“As we are witnessing Russia’s Ukraine aggression, the continuing situation over the Middle East, as well as the situation in East Asia, we are faced with a historic turning point,” Kishida said during an interview at his private residence in Tokyo.

“That is why Japan has made a decision to fundamentally reinforce its defense capabilities and we have greatly changed Japan’s security policy on these fronts,” he said.

In the face of mounting security challenges, the prime minister stressed, the Japan-United States alliance is becoming “ever more important,” a view he said he hoped would garner bipartisan support in Washington.

Kishida made the remarks days ahead of his Wednesday meeting with Biden in Washington, where he will also address a joint session of Congress and participate in the very first trilateral summit between Japan, the United States and the Philippines.

The Kishida-Biden summit has been characterized by Washington as a historic opportunity for the two countries to modernize their alliance as both eye regional threats from North Korea’s weapons testing and burgeoning relations with Russia to China’s aggression in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan.

Partnership with Japan has long been central to US strategy in the Indo-Pacific, but the defense relationship has expanded under Kishida, who has raised Japan’s profile in global and regional security.

Moving away from pacifist past

Since coming to office in 2021, the prime minister has overseen a sweeping shift in Tokyo’s defense posture, veering away from the pacifist constitution imposed on it by the United States in the aftermath of World War II, to boost defense spending to about 2% of its GDP by 2027 and acquire counterstrike capabilities.

That move is not without controversy, especially in China and other parts of Asia that suffered hugely under Japan’s World War II era militarism.

When asked about that shift, Kishida pointed to the “severe and complex” security environment surrounding his East Asian nation, the world’s fourth-largest economy.

“In our neighborhood, there are countries that are developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and others that are building up their defense capabilities in an opaque way. Also, there is a unilateral attempt to change the status quo, by force, in both the East China Sea and South China Sea,” he said, in an apparent reference to Chinese maritime aggression related to territorial disputes with both the Philippines and Japan.

Building Japan’s deterrence and response capability is also “essential” for the alliance with the United States, he argued.

“I hope the US will understand this, and that we can work together to improve the region’s peace and stability. I think it’s important to show the rest of the world that the US and Japan will further evolve our collaboration, through my visit,” Kishida said.

Next week’s events will also be a platform for deepening expansion between Japan and another key US regional partner and mutual defense treaty ally, the Philippines.

It comes less than a year after a ground-breaking meeting between the US, Japan and South Korea – with both summits underscoring the centrality of Japan in America’s Indo-Pacific security strategy and the push for increasing coordination with allies and partners amid rising regional tensions.

‘Stronger than ever’

Kishida’s visit with Biden next week also comes as both leaders face uncertain circumstances at home.

The Japanese prime minister grapples with dismal approval ratings, primarily following scandals involving his party, and the looming US elections raise the potential of a policy shake up if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House next year.

Both during his administration and in more recent years Trump has repeatedly poured cold water on Washington’s defense and security treaties, something that has rattled allies in both Asia and Europe alike.

Kishida declined to comment on if he was concerned about a return of the former president. Instead, he expressed belief that the importance of the US-Japan alliance was widely recognized “regardless of party affiliation.”

“The relationship between Japan and the United States has become stronger than ever before … Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, I think it is important to make sure that the American people recognize the importance of the Japan-US relationship,” he said.

Since taking office, Kishida has also positioned Japan as a partner to the US not only in Asia, but more globally.

He has championed a view that security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked, while emerging as a staunch backer of Ukraine and closely aligning with G7 countries in its position on Russia.

Those linkages have been close to home for Japan, as Russian and Chinese militaries conduct joint drills in the region and North Korea has now been accused by G7 nations of supplying Moscow with arms for use in its war in Ukraine – raising global concerns about an emerging axis between the three countries who all have tense relations with the United States.

Kishida also noted his government was making “high-level approaches” to secure a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to resolve “outstanding issues” and promote stable relations between the two countries.

Japan, alongside South Korea, is on the frontlines of North Korea’s aggressive weapons testing program, with its test missiles regularly falling into regional waters. The issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea more than decades ago has also remained an especially emotional point of contention.

Kishida said his government was monitoring exchanges of equipment between Pyongyang and Moscow and pointed to joint China and Russia military drills, describing such cooperation as “concerning, with respect to international order and stability.”

“At the same time, it is important to convey a firm message to North Korea and China that it is important for the peace, stability, and prosperity of the international community to maintain a free and open international order based on the rule of law,” Kishida said.

“We must also cooperate with them to promote a strong international community, not one of division and confrontation,” he added. “I believe that it is important to cooperate with the United States and our allies to create an atmosphere of cooperation, not of division and confrontation, to advance the international community.”