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President Biden will welcome Japan's prime minister at the White House

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden will welcome Japan's prime minister, Fumio Kishida, to the White House today for his first visit since taking office over a year ago. It comes on the heels of Japan's decision to embark on its biggest military buildup since the end of World War II. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo, the summit is likely to look at how that shift will affect the two countries and their decades-old military alliance.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In meetings in Washington ahead of the summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with their Japanese counterparts. Blinken praised Japan's surge in investment in its military.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We applaud Japan's pledge to double defense spending by 2027.

KUHN: While Secretary Austin praised its decision to get long-range missiles.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We strongly endorse Japan's decision to acquire a counterstrike capability.

KUHN: Japan's constitution forbids it from waging war. In past, the alliance has been described as the U.S. wielding the spear while Japan holds the shield. But recent events, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine, tensions in the Taiwan Strait and North Korea's barrage of missile tests, have all accelerated Japan's policy shift.

MIRNA GALIC: Japan has just seriously upgraded their shield.

KUHN: Mirna Galic is a senior policy analyst focusing on East Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

GALIC: So that means that as a whole, the alliance is stronger. The U.S. can use its resources better with Japan. And so they'll be looking at how to do that.

KUHN: Japan is shifting its military resources south in preparation for what it sees as the most likely contingency, an attack by mainland China on Taiwan. Japan has islands close to Taiwan. The U.S. will create a new Marine Corps regiment to help Japan defend them. Here's Defense Secretary Austin again.

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AUSTIN: We're replacing an artillery regiment with an outfit that's more lethal, more agile, more capable.

KUHN: Military bases in Japan are increasingly within reach of North Korean and Chinese missiles. So U.S. and Japanese troops are working on spreading out and presenting a smaller target.

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KUHN: Last month, U.S. and Japanese military personnel took part in command post exercises in Japan aimed at improving their ability to work together.

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XAVIER BRUNSON: We can't operate the way we once did.

KUHN: Lieutenant General Xavier Brunson, commanding general of the U.S. Army's First Corps, spoke after the drills.

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BRUNSON: The way that our army has operated over the past 20-plus years in Afghanistan and Iraq. We've got to get smaller. And this exercise allowed us to do that.

KUHN: Beneath the official pronouncements, tensions within the alliance remain. Japan's military buildup is in part to show its determination to defend itself and be the kind of nation allies want to support. But it may also be a hedge, says the U.S. Institute of Peace's Mirna Galic, against a return to a president like Donald Trump, who is openly skeptical of U.S. allies.

GALIC: That might have been percolating under the surface and is still kind of a fear and a concern, that a different U.S. president might pull that again.

KUHN: And as Japan's military clout grows, it may demand a greater say in who calls the shots within the alliance. Shigeru Ishiba is a ruling party lawmaker and former defense minister.

SHIGERU ISHIBA: (Through interpreter) I believe that having the Japan-U.S. relationship as equal as possible will enhance the sustainability of the alliance.

KUHN: It's taken Japan more than seven decades to gradually loosen some of the post-war restraints on its military. Reaching an equal footing with its current ally and former occupier is likely to be a long haul as well.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.