Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.10.12

Will Japan’s China policy change under Kishida’s leadership?  ~The new leader's views on China seem to be evolving~

the japan times on October 1, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy China

For the first time in the Liberal Democratic Party’s history two female candidates ran for its top leadership position. Also, more than 90 younger parliamentarians requested drastic reform within the party.

After two weeks of media frenzy, however, the LDP’s presidential election ended up as if it were a foregone conclusion for many in Tokyo.

Some may wonder why Fumio Kishida was elected or why Taro Kono, the most popular candidate among the public, failed to win. Will Prime Minister Kishida, a former foreign minister, follow in the footsteps of the Shinzo Abe and the Yoshihide Suga administrations’ foreign policy, or will he pursue his own?

Stability vs. reform

Putting aside all the analyses about each candidate’s campaign tactics or political gaffes, the election result was crystal clear. The majority of the LDP parliamentarians preferred stability and continuity to reform and rejuvenation of the party at the end of the day.

On Sept. 3, when Prime Minister Suga announced that he would not seek re-election, the LDP’s approval rating was so low that junior LDP parliamentarians appeared to prefer Kono to Kishida because the former was considered more electable ahead of the upcoming Lower House election in November.

Ironically, the four-candidate presidential race gave a boost to the LDP’s approval rating and by Sept. 29, the election day, many of those junior lawmakers grew confident that the party could prevail in November, even with Kishida. In a sense, the LDP should thank Suga for saving the party by not running for re-election.

A third Abe Cabinet?

Several Kishida critics expressed concern that he is acting as if he is “Abe’s puppet.” They see Kishida seemingly adopting a hard-line policy against China in a bid to appeal to the party’s conservatives — including Abe, who is very influential within the Hosoda faction.

Historically, Kishida’s faction has a dovish tradition. It was founded by former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda and eventually succeeded by former Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira. As foreign minister, Ohira traveled to Beijing in 1972 together with then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to normalize relations with China.

Going soft on China

China has enough reasons to hope so. Kishida’s view on China, however, seems to be evolving. During the LDP presidential election campaign, he said, “In order to protect such universal values as freedom, democracy, rule of law and human rights, we need to say firmly what needs to be said in the face of the expansion of authoritarian regimes like China, while cooperating with countries that share such values.”

On Kishida’s election, a Sept. 29 editorial in China’s Global times wrote that “It is hoped that after assuming the LDP presidency, Kishida will play his due role as a political leader to ease Japan’s increasing anti-China sentiment, instead of further promoting a line of tough competition against China. He should be aware that maintaining a prudent China policy is in line with Japan’s national interests.”

Beijing’s hopes

Although the Global Times does not always represent the government of China, its editorials sometimes reveal its hidden intentions. The Sept. 29 editorial went on to say Japan should not “shape itself as China’s enemy under any circumstances” and laid out what it said were crucial steps Tokyo needs to take. Here they are and my thoughts on these matters.

“First, Japan should not return to the road of militarism.” There is no argument there but that road is exactly the path that China’s People’s Liberation Army is following, isn’t it?

“Second, Japan cannot participate in any multilateral military alliance that clearly targets China.” China may be afraid of such multilateral military alliances like AUKUS, the new Australian, British and American security partnership, but Beijing shouldn’t fret as of now given that Japan is not there yet.

“Third, Japan’s SDF should not blatantly provoke China like the U.S. military.” As for this statement, Japan is not provoking China — Tokyo is just trying to deter it.

“Fourth, Tokyo needs to be particularly cautious in terms of the Taiwan question.” For his part, Kishida welcomes Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. China shouldn’t worry because Japan is only deepening its relations with Taiwan within the context of the Japan-China Joint Statement of 1972.

“Fifth, in regard to old issues including visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, textbooks and the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, Japan has to ramp up efforts to control its differences with China, and it should not easily exploit any of them as a card.” The reality is China is the one that exploits them as “cards.”

“Sixth, in the tech war against China waged by the U.S., Japan should not coordinate with the U.S. to establish a supply chain excluding China in a bid to undermine China’s economic future.” As for economic security, Kishida said he would enact a law and create a new ministerial post to enhance economic security measures for Japan.

Japan’s neoliberal economy

If the above six are what Beijing has on its wish list for Kishida, they are false expectations. What Kishida really wants to change seems to be Japan’s neoliberal economic policies of the past two decades, which he believes are contributing to economic disparities in the country.

Kishida seems to be more concerned about the widening gaps between those industries thriving and those suffering amid the pandemic. He has also stressed the importance of redistributing wealth, saying, “If we keep taking the same approach, disparities will only worsen and we won’t achieve a healthy economic cycle.”

All in all, whether Kishida is Abe’s puppet or not, what he should do or can do in his foreign policy will be defined by the geostrategic reality in the Indo-Pacific region. He said he is a good listener. What is more important, however, is that he should be a good implementer of necessary policies after listening to the right voices.