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Foreign policy positions typically haven’t carried much weight in terms of winning support in leadership elections for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. But candidates for party president — and ultimately prime minister — in this year’s hotly contested poll have zeroed in on one particular topic to help galvanize support: China.

While the LDP’s once-powerful contingent of China doves have often kept candidates for the party’s top spot in check, this year’s election looks to be a different beast, with the top contenders staking out hawkish positions on Japan’s powerful neighbor.

Indeed, in the wake of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s shock announcement that he will step down at the end of the month, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Japan’s shift toward a more hard-line approach to its dealings with China is unlikely to change, even as the country’s leader does.

The shift in tone was highlighted almost as soon as the race began, with former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, an erstwhile China dove, coming out guns blazing in targeting China’s assertive actions.

In a series of interviews, news conferences and debates, Kishida has called stability in the Taiwan Strait “the next big problem,” urged more cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and Japan Coast Guard near the disputed Senkaku Islands and pledged to create a special post to focus on human rights issues, including alleged abuses of ethnic Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.

Kishida, who was Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, has also taken a page from U.S. President Joe Biden’s multilateral approach to dealing with Beijing, calling for Tokyo to work even more closely with Washington and other “like-minded” democracies in confronting China.

“China must act appropriately and show responsibility to match its status as a global power,” he said last week, vowing to bolster Japan’s alliance with the United States while deepening strategic ties with other countries that share “common fundamental values” as a counterweight to Beijing.

But, as Japan and China are set to mark the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties in 2022, Kishida has also noted the importance of holding summit talks with Beijing in an effort to ensure a stable relationship.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel sails in front of Uotsuri Island, one of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea in August 2013. | REUTERS
A Japan Coast Guard vessel sails in front of Uotsuri Island, one of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea in August 2013. | REUTERS

Taro Kono, the country’s vaccine minister and the LDP candidate leading in public polling, has also emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance in confronting China over what he says are “expansionist” policies and attempts to subvert the rules-based international order.

As defense minister, Kono — who has also served as foreign minister — was among the first LDP heavyweights to refer to China as “a security threat to Japan,” frequently citing Chinese government vessels’ movements near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Beijing, as proof of its intentions.

Speaking at an event with the other candidates on Saturday, Kono said that as long as the possibility of an all-out Chinese invasion of Taiwan remains, Japan must work with the U.S. and the international community to strongly demonstrate to Beijing that they won’t let a military confrontation occur there — or elsewhere — on their watch.

“This shouldn’t be limited to just Taiwan, but also the South and East China seas,” Kono said.

But he has also vowed to take a more nuanced approach — especially considering Japan’s economic relationship with China — saying that Tokyo, together with Washington, must get a better handle on the thinking in Beijing.

“Leaders (of Japan and China) must hold regular talks,” he said. “It’s important to ensure communication via talks between the governments.”

Out of all of the contenders, former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi has taken the toughest stance in response to China’s growing assertiveness.

She is a strong advocate of revising the pacifist Constitution, building an offensive military capability and bolstering Japan’s ability to respond to cyberattacks. Takaichi has called the chances of a conflict erupting over Taiwan “high,” pledging that her government would be prepared to respond to any emergency situation.

On Sunday, Takaichi raised eyebrows as the sole candidate to say that she would accept a U.S. deployment of ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Japan amid the growing security threat from China.

“Deploying intermediate-range missiles is absolutely necessary to protect the lives and territory of the Japanese people,” she said.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bumps elbows with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the start of their meeting in Tokyo last November. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bumps elbows with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the start of their meeting in Tokyo last November. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Takaichi has also said she would continue to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, which honors convicted war criminals along with more than 2.4 million war dead, calling her earlier shrine visits a matter of religious freedom.

Beijing has lambasted visits to the shrine, claiming they highlight Japan’s “wrong attitude” toward its wartime history “and its sinister intention to challenge the postwar international order.”

The conservative Takaichi has garnered the endorsements of some of the party’s most outspoken China hawks, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; Abe’s brother and current defense chief, Nobuo Kishi; his deputy, State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama; as well as former defense chief Tomomi Inada, among others.

Only one candidate, lawmaker Seiko Noda, has taken a comparatively more moderate position on China, though she has offered few details of her approach.

Beijing has looked on warily as the leading candidates have jockeyed to show off their “aggressive stances targeting China.”

“Japanese politicians should stop making an issue out of China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news conference last week. “Enough with such senseless political hype-up.”

China’s propaganda apparatus, meanwhile, has taken a more realistic tone.

Acknowledging that Suga, despite not being known for his foreign policy chops, has played a large role in cementing an approach to China that began in earnest under Abe, editorials in state-run media have said that little, if anything, is likely to change with the next Japanese leader.

“China-Japan relations under the Suga administration this year have been terrible, slipping all the way to a deep gulf from the evaluation of getting ‘back on a normal track’ in 2018,” the nationalist Global Times tabloid said in an editorial earlier this month. “No matter who becomes new president of the LDP and takes over as prime minister, a big U-turn in China-Japan relations is considered unrealistic. This is because the atmosphere about China in Japan is becoming increasingly unfriendly.”

Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June 2019. | SPUTNIK / KREMLIN / VIA REUTERS
Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June 2019. | SPUTNIK / KREMLIN / VIA REUTERS

Under Suga and Abe, Tokyo has been uncharacteristically outspoken over China’s assertiveness near Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, as well as its crackdown in Hong Kong and its alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang.

These stances have been a marked departure from the days when Japan and China sought to create a “new era” for bilateral ties after years of rancorous relations.

Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank’s Japan program, said Tokyo’s shift in its approach to Beijing “simply reflects the growing awareness across the political spectrum, not just within the LDP but beyond … of the security challenges that China presents.”

She said the power and influence of China doves, not just within the LDP but across government institutions such as the Foreign Ministry, has long been in decline, with China’s recent aggressive behavior helping to accelerate the trend.

Aside from this, a more pressing reason for the heated China rhetoric among the candidates may simply be the need to corral votes of the LDP’s more conservative wing in a down-to-the-wire leadership election in which rank-and-file members will have an enormous impact.

However, those members will only be able to vote in the first round of the leadership poll.

“I think they are all trying to court the conservatives among the (rank-and-file) LDP members,” said Ko Maeda, a professor of political science at the University of North Texas.

He said that although Takaichi has already received Abe’s endorsement, Kono and Kishida “may still want to be popular” among the party’s core supporters.

“Core supporters with firm ideological beliefs are the people who are likely to vote both in this leadership selection” and in the upcoming Lower House election due this fall, as well as an Upper House election that must be held by next summer, Maeda said.

Winning the fall election and 2022 poll, he added, “will be extremely important for the new leader,” since there will not have to be another national election until 2025.

“The new leader, whoever it is, will have to think what diplomatic position will benefit the LDP electorally,” Maeda said.

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