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Japan: Kishida’s Balancing Act and Road Ahead

Mr Abhijitha Singh is pursuing PhD at Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • February 25, 2022

    One of the major developments in Japan in the recent months has been the election to the 465-member House of Representatives, in which the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s leadership secured 261 votes, while its junior partner Komeito got only 32.1

    Earlier in September, at the ruling party’s election some important changes occurred, one of which was removal of its long-time Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, a pro-China politician.2 The pro-China faction within the LDP has weakened due to several reasons. First, a few of Nikai’s faction members got involved in scandals.3 Second, since several senior members of the faction had to retire in recent times, the faction is now filled with young and inexperienced legislators. Nikai’s announcement of his faction’s support for former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the 2021 LDP presidential election was done without any prior consultation with other faction members, which seems to have created friction within the Nikai faction and has affected its unity.

    Balancing Act

    Kishida has been very tactful in his selection of important officials to run the government. His chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, has been critical of Chinese military development and has proposed stepping up Japan’s own missile defence capability.4 Kishida’s defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s younger brother. He has directly linked Taiwan’s security to that of Japan’s.5 Kishida’s minister of economy, trade and industry, Koichi Hagiuda, is known for his revisionist thinking. He has drawn flak from China for paying a visit to Yasukuni Shrine.6 All of them are members of the Abe faction, which is the largest faction within LDP with a strong nationalist agenda. Kishida’s finance minister, Shunichi Suzuki, is the brother-in-law of former prime minister and finance minister Taro Aso. He is a member of the Aso faction (the second largest in LDP) and is known for his strong stance vis-à-vis China.7

    Kishida has appointed Yoshimasa Hayashi, a pro-China politician, as his foreign minister. Hayashi has made his intentions clear regarding Japan’s concerns about China’s actions.8 He has also resigned from his position as Chairman of Japan–China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union in order “to avoid causing unnecessary misunderstandings”.9 

    Environment Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi and Economic Security Minister Takayuki Kobayashi are the only members of the Nikai faction in the present cabinet, but both of them are relatively new to the political dynamics of LDP and have been selected because of their support for Kishida, rather than their loyalty to Nikai.

    The bonhomie between Toshihiro Nikai and Beijing is well established. During the previous two administrations, the faction known as Shisuikai, led by Nikai and Takaya Imai, had sought stronger economic relations with China.10 Nikai was an advocate of Japan’s foreign aid to China and cooperation on the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).11 Former secretary general of the national security secretariat, Shotaro Yachi,12 and Japan’s business community13 as well as Komeito14 also favoured friendship with China.

    When Nikai was elected to the National Diet in 1983, he advocated for Japan’s funding of ODA (Official Development Assistance) to China.15 Beijing also used it to create policy dissonance between Washington and Tokyo.

    Amidst tensions between Japan and China over Senkaku Islands,16  Nikai led a delegation of lawmakers in 2015, to Beijing. Nikai reportedly had a ‘warm’ exchange with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the meantime, Washington was tussling with Beijing over its cyberthefts.17

    Nikai visited China twice in 2017 and was welcomed by Xi Jinping both the times. In May, he appeared at a forum promoting Beijing’s ‘One Belt One Road’ development project, promoting China–Japan economic relations.18 The meetings were followed by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to China, which created doubts over Japan’s commitment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD, between India, Japan, US and Australia).19 Chinese gestures occurred when US President Donald Trump was demanding that Japan pay for the US defence umbrella in East Asia.20

    In 2020, Chinese ships intruded into Japanese territory near the Senkaku Islands causing tensions between the two.21 Yet, Nikai met the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tokyo, and expressed LDP’s commitment to deepening relations between Japan and China.22 Meanwhile, in the 2020 US presidential elections, both the candidates, Donald Trump and Joseph Biden, had adopted a hardline stance against China.23

    Road Ahead

    With the weakening of the pro-China lobby inside the LDP, Prime Minister Kishida is well positioned to further pursue Tokyo’s engagement with QUAD and the US, which remains central to Japan’s foreign policy. Previously, China had raised hue and cry over QUAD.24 China had also spread anti-Japanese sentiments in an effort to meddle in Taiwan’s 2020 elections. One rumour reportedly charged President Tsai Ing-wen of “selling out” Taiwan to the US and Japan.25 Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front has fostered anti-Japanese sentiments to “promote a common narrative” on Japan’s revived militarism.26 Beijing has also opposed Tokyo’s attempt at increasing its defence spending.27

    Beijing has often tried to stir up trouble in Tokyo over Okinawa.28 In one of the instances, Global Times encouraged China to call Okinawa by its former name ‘Ryukyu’.29 However, with the pro-China lobby led by Nikai losing the clout, Prime Minister Kishida can focus better on his defence and foreign policy objectives than his predecessors. He aims to double Japan's defence spending to around 2 per cent of the gross domestic product.30 Recently, his Cabinet has approved a supplementary budget that has increased Japan’s defence expenditure to 1.13 per cent for the current year.31 The government plans to set a defence budget of US$ 264 billion under the mid-term defence programme from the fiscal year 2023.32

    Furthermore, Kishida may seek to build Japan’s missile-strike capability and develop its nuclear-powered submarines.33 He has shown interest in the idea of boosting Japan’s ties with India, the US, Australia, and other democratic Asian powers.34

    On the foreign policy front, Prime Minister Kishida needs to put on track Japan's relations with China, the two Koreas, and Russia. Beijing continues to pursue its aggressive policies in the region.35 Japan's rift with South Korea over issues of history is still where it was earlier.36 North Korea remains too ambitious about its nuclear missile programme in the region.37 Japan's friction with Russia over four islands off the eastern coast of Hokkaido is yet to be resolved.38

    Kishida may be interested in working on a contingency plan allowing Tokyo to coordinate with the US more substantially to defend Taipei against any Chinese aggression.39 Pertinently, the clause for collective self-defence allows Tokyo to defend the US bases located in Japan and abroad.40 Japan’s latest defence white paper states that “Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security”.41

    Japan’s Defense Minister Kishi has mentioned the need to “bolster trilateral relations between Japan, US and Taiwan”.42 This will help in trilateral modes of intelligence-sharing and decision-making during the Taiwan crisis. There have been discussions over the need for a Japanese version of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act, which reaffirms US commitment to “the preservation of human rights of the people of Taiwan”. There is strong support for it amongst members of the LDP like Kishi and former State Minister of Defence Yasuhide Nakayama. Kishida is also likely to focus on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. For this, Kishida has appointed former Defence Minister Gen Nakatani as the special advisor on human rights issues.43

    Kishida has managed his China policy wisely. He has kept diplomatic channels open with Beijing. On 27 December 2021, Defence Minister Kishi and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe agreed to set up a hotline by the end of 2022.44 While Tokyo values Beijing as its largest trading partner, it remains cautious against China’s continued military aggression. Kishida is a member of the ultra-rightist Nippon Kaigi lobby.45 There is a near consensus in Kishida’s cabinet on the need to contain China. Even Komeito, known for its emphasis on China–Japan historical and socio-cultural ties, has voiced its concerns over Chinese authoritarianism.46

    The exclusion of pro-China Nikai from the ruling LDP’s power structure is likely to help Kishida advance his defence and foreign policy agenda more independently. Beijing’s continued aggressive actions in the region suggest that it is unlikely to change its approach towards Tokyo in the near future. Kishida is likely to prioritise a foreign policy that is in harmony with that of the US. He may also look towards strengthening Tokyo’s relations with democratic nations, including Taiwan, South Korea, and India.  

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