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Assessing Japan’s Diplomacy in 2023

Dr Arnab Dasgupta is a Research Analyst in the East Asia Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 21, 2023

    Japan has had a busy diplomatic year. It had to adapt its foreign policy on account of the structural challenge posed by China and was also called upon to display dexterity as a gamut of old and new territorial and ideological conflicts reignited in West Asia and Eastern Europe. Japan’s neighbourhood underwent milestone shifts that required deft tending by Tokyo. The infusion of defence-oriented language into its rhetoric had to take into account reactions across all of Asia and the world. Further, due to an internal political reshuffle, Japan has had two foreign ministers, giving rise to the unusual phenomenon (in Japan) of a prime minister explicitly staking a claim to make a personal impact on foreign policy. Given these trends, Japan’s diplomacy in 2023 marks a significant inflection point.

    Rapprochement with the Global South

    The first key trend noticeable in Japan’s foreign policy in 2023 has been its ardent embrace of the Global South concept. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida chose the occasion of his visit to New Delhi in March to announce his new plan for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.1 This plan gave importance to South and South-East Asia as well as Africa as key regions for Japan’s strategic engagement. Kishida’s invitation to India and Indonesia, two leading Global South nations, to the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, as well as his interactions with Global South leaders during the G-20 summit in New Delhi,2 spoke about Japan’s sincerity in putting its rhetoric into practice.

    Kishida was ably assisted in this enterprise by Foreign Ministers Yoshimasa Hayashi and (post-September) Yoko Kamikawa. Both Hayashi and Kamikawa used their visits to Global South countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to reinforce Japan’s commitment to convey their concerns to the industrialised Global North. Even the Imperial family was roped into the role of de facto ambassadors of Japan’s message. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako visited Indonesia in June, Crown Prince Fumihito (the Emperor’s brother) and Crown Princess Kiko visited Vietnam in September, while Princess Kako’s (daughter of the Crown Prince) successful visit to Peru in November compensated for the lack of visits by Kishida to the region.

    Neighbourhood Diplomacy

    Developments in the neighbourhood added new dimensions to Japan’s diplomatic calendar. The inauguration of a new President of the Republic of Korea, Yoon Suk-Yeol, in December 2022 augured a sea-change in that country’s blind-spot towards Japan. Yoon surprised many among his own countrymen by seeking out an engagement with Kishida in March. The engagement followed a long freeze in bilateral ties after the previous South Korean administration of Moon Jae-in allowed a Supreme Court judgement on Japan’s historical atrocities in the peninsula to affect bilateral security and political cooperation in 2018. Since that first meeting in March, Yoon and Kishida met each other seven times over the next nine months,3 a frequency rare in the annals of diplomacy.

    During Kishida’s visit to Seoul in May, Yoon went further than any other South Korean leader in de-emphasising issues of history, wholeheartedly echoed by Kishida. The rapid improvement in ties resulted in some tangible benefits. The ROK did not oppose Japan’s release of seawater used in the clean-up of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in August. Yoon and Kishida, in association with President Joseph Biden, agreed to resume joint military and security cooperation against the actions of North Korea and China.4

    China itself proved to be the elephant in the room in 2023, particularly in the latter half of the year as Japan embarked on the wastewater discharge from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It not only insisted on opposing the United Nations specialised agencies’ stance on the safety of the discharged water, but also embarked on an unprecedented campaign against Japanese citizens, mobilising crowds to vandalise the Japanese Embassy and a Japanese school, pre-emptively banning seafood and other exports from Japan, and encouraging a unique prank-call campaign against Japanese domestic entities.5

    Japan also showed willingness to escalate matters by joining with the US and the Netherlands to restrict Chinese access to advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology in October.6 Japan widened its sanctions list in December to include Chinese government labs engaged in nuclear research as a protest against the latter’s expansion of its nuclear arsenal.7 Nevertheless, the two sides did resume informal military talks,8 and Kishida met President Xi Jinping on the side lines of the APEC Summit in November to discuss bilateral issues.9

    Emphasising Defence Ties

    Another discernible trend in Japan’s diplomacy in 2023 was the uptick in mentions of defence and security issues in its engagements with relevant countries. Kishida’s visit to New Delhi in March saw him engaging Prime Minister Narendra Modi on issues of defence technology cooperation. Kishida’s public commitment later in the summer to reconsider Japan’s strict curbs on export of lethal defence technology in the teeth of opposition from pacifist quarters of the Japanese political sphere saw him using his visit to Ukraine as an opportunity to shake up established norms. His subsequent visits to North Africa and South-East Asia, as well as those of his deputies to Europe, the US and West Asia have shown a consistent throughline under which Japan has committed to work cooperatively with partners and like-minded countries to ensure not only maritime security, but, as part of its comprehensive national power, economic, energy and technology security as well.

    One of the most distinctive advances under this overarching theme has been the introduction of the Official Security Assistance (OSA) program10 as a complement to its Official Development Assistance. With an initial budget of 450 million Japanese yen, the OSA is intended to provide non-lethal security assistance to key countries. The first recipients, Fiji, Malaysia, the Philippines and Bangladesh, are indicative of Japan’s areas of interest, and Tokyo has shown its openness to considering an expansion of the program to a global scale in partnership with other net security providers in their respective regions. The fact that the Philippines is presently embroiled in a stand-off against China in the Second Thomas Shoal indicates Japan’s strategic choice in ensuring smaller countries are capable of pushing back against Chinese maritime aggression.

    Enhancement of the Prime Minister’s Role

    The year 2023 also marked the year when Japan’s diplomacy underwent an institutional reworking in terms of who ‘does’ foreign policy. In essence, this change turned the Japanese prime minister into the key effector of policies, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs being placed in a secretarial role.

    Evidence of this could best be found in the announcement of the replacement of Yoshimasa Hayashi as the nation’s chief diplomat while Hayashi was on a trip to Ukraine, and the rapid substitution of Yoko Kamikawa—with no significant prior experience of foreign affairs, to the position. Kishida’s desire to take a greater role in foreign affairs came from a press conference he delivered in the wake of the reshuffle of his cabinet in September. He noted that while “[m]inisters have an important role to play…summit diplomacy is a big component as well. I myself intend to play a major role in such summit diplomacy.”11

    As observers of Japan’s political arena know well, Japanese prime ministers tend not to be primarily aggressive salesmen of their country abroad, choosing to focus instead on leaving behind domestic legacies. Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda is the epitomical example. A former bureaucrat, he was central to the engineering of the ambitious industrial policies that caused what we now know as Japan’s high-speed economic growth era, from 1960 to 1973. Some prime ministers, to be sure, have been outward-looking in terms of their legacy-building: Shigeru Yoshida, father of the Yoshida Doctrine espousing close security ties with US in lieu of a focus on economic growth at home, and Shinzo Abe, come to mind. However, none so far have staked quite such an overt claim to diplomatic primacy as Kishida.

    It is widely speculated, to some extent justly, that Kishida’s low domestic support ratings, due largely to internal policy failures such as the talk of new taxes to increase defence spending and the failure to completely repudiate the Liberal Democratic Party’s cosy ties with the controversial Unification Church, may have led him to seek diplomatic successes. However, this remains a double-edged sword. Should his key initiatives, such as the OSA or outreach to the Global South, sour, he will be doubly blamed for frittering away valuable policy space to pursue arcane objectives abroad. As such, Kishida’s ensuing moves in this sphere bear observation.


    It is interesting to note that Japan, despite its long-standing image as a staid, reactive power, stands at a diplomatic crossroads of increasing significance at the end of 2023. Which road it takes in 2024 is not easy to predict, but there are certain significant mileposts which could signal the direction. One crucial milepost will be how Japan manages its ties with the Global South, especially with India. Another crucial marker will be the success (or failure) of its new policy of studied neutrality in West Asia, which will indicate whether it is prepared to deviate from the Western world’s script should its interests be seriously affected. Third, and finally, it would be interesting to see whether Prime Minister Kishida continues to expand his role in diplomacy, and to what extent he can claim the space to do so before encountering significant bureaucratic pushback.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.