Fumio Kishida is swimming with sharks

Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should take lessons from Shinzo Abe on how to keep the nation safe from aggression.

In a world shaped by great power rivalry and rising authoritarianism, Japan’s new prime minister Fumio Kishida must learn to swim with sharks.

I wonder if he has the strength to survive, or if he will sink beneath the waves, as did Japan`s former leader, Yoshihide Suga?

If the LDP wins the Lower House election, which is due at the end of this month, Mr Kishida will find himself invited to meetings with formidable figures, such as China’s Xi Jinping and Russia`s Vladimir Putin.

Mr Kishida knows both men through his previous role as Japan`s foreign minister. He has no illusions about the risks they pose. 

At his first news conference as Prime Minister, held in Tokyo at the start of October, Mr Kishida said: “There appear to be moves to change the status quo by using force. The important stance for us is to be able to say what needs to be said to China.”

Contradictory remarks

For the past few weeks, I have been consulting with experts on Japanese politics in the hope of getting a clear picture of where Mr Kishida stands on China and other important defence and foreign policy issues. 

They tell me he is likely to be more like Shinzo Abe than any of the other candidates who vied to lead the LDP. But they also pointed out to me several inconsistencies in Mr Kishida`s remarks, which seem typical of a wily politician who has been striving for high office. 

For example, in a book he published last year, Mr Kishida said he has a good relationship with China`s foreign minister, Wang Yi and would like President Xi Jinping to make an official visit to Tokyo. That was Mr Abe`s policy at the time, too. 

On the other hand, he has spoken in favour of strengthening Japan`s missile capability, enhancing its role in regional security and prioritising the alliance with the United States – policies which China abhors.

Part of the reason for the contradiction is that Mr Kishida probably drafted his book at a time when Sino-Japanese relations were going through a brief period of detente. 

Since then, China’s international image has been tarnished by the treatment of the Uighers in Xinjiang, the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and its attempts to cover up the outbreak of Covid.

The White House position

Another reason the great power rivalry has intensified is the continued hawkish stance of US presidents. Barack Obama wished to avoid a clash with China, perhaps naively. However, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have placed the challenge to China at the forefront of their foreign policy. 

Mr Biden is building on Mr Trump’s efforts to create a coalition of like-minded countries, to counter China’s belligerent activities. In September, President Biden chaired a meeting of the informal security alliance known as the Quad, which includes the USA, Japan, India and Australia.

The president also pressed through the Aukus security pact, between the US, UK and Australia – a deal which the Japanese government welcomed. 

The security environment continues to deteriorate, especially along the Taiwan Strait. There have been a record-breaking number of incursions by Chinese warplanes into the air defence zone of Taiwan since the start of October. 

Meanwhile, North Korea has ramped up its missile tests and boasts of the increasing sophistication of its weapons. Kim Jong-Un’s regime has also vowed to also expand its military, to counter what it calls hostile policies from the United States and its allies.

The burden of deterrence

For Prime Minister Kishida, these disturbing developments raise the pressing question as to whether Japan’s planned increases in defence spending are sufficient.

Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has requested a defence budget of JPY5. 48 trillion (USD50 billion) for 2022, a record amount that could surpass the long-standing cap of 1% of gross domestic product.

Yet China’s spending on defence has more than doubled over the past decade, and the country’s fleets of modern submarines and fighter jets are already larger than Japan’s. North Korea`s economic problems, caused by Covid and sanctions, have not deterred it from threatening Japan with weapons of mass destruction.

Prime Minister Kishida has claimed that one of his best personal attributes is that of a good listener. One person whose voice he is eager to hear is that of Takayuki Kobayshi, a former vice minister for defence, who takes up a new post in the cabinet as minister for economic security. Mr Kobayashi has been briefed to assess the threat from Beijing and North Korea on a range of fronts, including cyber warfare.

Political strategy 

Despite the close attention to risk, I do not expect there to be much change in Japan’s defence budget nor its foreign policy, at least in the short term. If Mr Kishida successfully leads the ruling party, the LDP through the Lower House election in October and then does well in the Upper House polls next year, he may become emboldened. But for now, he wishes to be regarded as a moderate.

As well as winning votes, he must also please a significant supporter – Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who left the post with a record 3186 days in office in 2020. Mr Abe continues as a major force within the LDP. As the kingmaker who offered Mr Kishida the leadership crown, the new PM will surely follow Mr Abe`s guidance.

This is no bad thing. Mr Abe was a skilled diplomat and became a global elder statesman, looked up to by people such as Angela Merkel.

And under Mr Abe, Japan recorded its best growth and employment performance for several decades, leaving funds for appropriate investment in its defence. Donald Trump recognised this achievement, when he pressed Mr Abe to offer more “burden sharing” for hosting US troops and bases. Joe Biden`s team also expects Japan to be a loyal and responsible ally. 

In the past, Mr Kishida was said to take a more “realistic approach” towards China and North Korea than prime minister Abe, suggesting he is inherently less hawkish. 

Yet as the reality has changed around the world – particularly in East Asia. This means that even a pragmatist will have realised that being too concessionary towards China risks being cut adrift by the Americans.

These are dangerous waters. However, with Mr Abe on the sidelines offering support, my hope is that Mr Kishida can survive the shark tank.

This article was originally published by Japan Forward.

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