Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.11.22

Japan’s new foreign minister isn’t a pro-China ‘panda hugger’

Contrary to the popular narrative, Yoshimasa Hayashi is not the “pro-China” legislator he’s made out to be

the japan times on November 12, 2021

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made minor changes to his Cabinet this week after comfortably winning the general election. Naturally, he retained all his incumbent Cabinet ministers except for one — the minister for foreign affairs.

Kishida tapped Yoshimasa Hayashi, a policy-savvy legislator with degrees from the University of Tokyo and Harvard University, as well as experience working as a staffer for a congressman and senator in Washington.

Despite his illustrious career, however, Hayashi has often been misunderstood as a pro-China “panda hugger.”

For those who do not follow the day-to-day domestic politics in Japan, let me explain why former Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi was replaced by Hayashi, a newly elected member of the Lower House, but nevertheless a veteran lawmaker who served as a member of the Upper House for 26 years and held Cabinet posts, including defense minister, education minister and agricultural minister.

Political maneuvering

Last week, I wrote “Several well-known ever-victorious veteran lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties … either lost their seats or at least their districts (but were re-elected through proportional representation).” One was Akira Amari, who was forced to resign from his post as the LDP’s secretary-general.

Amari, along with former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso have been dubbed the “3As,” a trio of powerful senior politicians who have wield extensive political influence and prestige for the past decade.

Kishida replaced Amari with Motegi, another powerful politician who is acting chair of the third largest faction in the LDP, to counterbalance the influence of the now “2As” (the 3As sans Amari), as well as to enhance his political clout as prime minister.

Some in the conservative camp in Tokyo openly criticize Hayashi’s appointment. They point to an article that Hayashi wrote in the November issue of a monthly magazine, in which the veteran lawmaker said, “The economies of Japan and China are inextricably intertwined, and we cannot just say, ‘Tomorrow we will reduce trade between Japan and China to zero.’”

Other anti-China conservatives claim that “Japan needs to work together with Western countries to address the security issues in East Asia and human rights issues in China,” and Hayashi’s appointment “sends a wrong message to the world that Japan is inclined toward friendship between Japan and China.”

Reportedly, although the 2As, former Prime Ministers Abe and Aso, expressed reservations that Hayashi is too pro-China, Kishida pushed through and ignored their concerns.

A family feud

This issue is further complicated by a local family feud. Both the Abes and the Hayashis are based in the same city of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and have been considered as political rivals for generations.

To make matters worse, due to the shrinking local population, the number of the Lower House seats allocated to Yamaguchi Prefecture must soon be reduced from four to three.

This means that one of the four incumbent members of the Lower House, including Abe, Hayashi and Kishi, Shinzo Abe’s younger brother, will not be re-elected in the next general election, which is expected sometime within four years. In Japan, like in the United States, “all politics is local” as well.

Two nights before he became foreign minister, Hayashi appeared in BS Fuji TV’s political debate program, which I also appeared on. When asked if he was aware of his reputation as a “pro-China” politician, Hayashi said: “Some may wonder so because I have been chairman of the nonpartisan Parliamentarians’ League for Japan-China Friendship.”

“That said,” Hayashi continued, “we can be those who know China well, but we should not be those who cozy up to China.” He also quoted Sun Tzu, the famed Chinese general and military strategist, saying, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.”

Cool-headed realist

He concluded that “This does not mean any military engagement with China but when negotiating with China, for example, knowing the other side well is better than not knowing them at all.” Hayashi also quoted Kishida’s remarks that “when it comes to China or Russia, we must assert what needs to be asserted.”

Regarding the Uyghur human rights issue, Hayashi said, “No matter how you look at it, it is an issue that should be of serious concern.” He recognized that sanctions in cooperation with other countries would be considered “if China’s human rights were found to be problematic by international organizations.”

Finally, regarding the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, he said “China must satisfy very high levels of requirements not only for tariffs but also on rules before it joins the TPP. Since China made commitments on the RCEP trade agreement, we must first see how China can and will implement those commitments.”

Talking to him up close in the television studio for nearly two hours, what impressed me was his cool-headed, realistic approach in dealing with China.

While we must see how Hayashi handles Japan’s foreign policy in the months to come, one thing seems to be certain, Beijing should not be optimistic that Hayashi will be different, both in style and substance, from Abe, Suga and Kishida when Japan and China have disagreements.

At least, so far, the Kishida Cabinet looks as tough as the previous administrations of Japan.