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With his Cabinet now in place, newly minted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is sending a message to both partners and rivals alike: When it comes to Japan’s foreign and security policy, stability and continuity will remain top priorities.

Kishida, who holds the title of Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, brings a wealth of diplomatic experience to the table. But questions still hang over his fledgling administration as it seeks to fend off concerns about a potential return to revolving-door prime ministers and how it will deal with China, its increasingly assertive neighbor and key economic partner.

Still, with the formation of a new Cabinet, Kishida has already signaled to the United States that there will be little deviation from the positions staked out by his two immediate predecessors.

Nowhere has this been more clear than in his decision to keep the country’s current top diplomat and defense minister in their positions despite reshuffling the rest of the Cabinet.

In retaining Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and defense chief Nobuo Kishi, the new prime minister will be looking to reassure Washington on the continuity front while also keeping Beijing on its toes.

As foreign minister, Motegi — leader of the Liberal Democratic Party’s traditionally pro-China Takeshita faction — backstopped the previous two administrations’ diplomatic successes on the global stage. He is expected to continue laying the groundwork for a bolstered U.S.-Japan alliance while also strengthening fresh multilateral initiatives such as high-level summits of the “Quad” security group, which consists of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

Speaking to reporters after he was officially tapped to keep his post, Motegi said he had discussed with his new boss the importance of continuity — especially regarding Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” — as the balance of power in the region continues to shift, as well as the country’s overall approach to foreign policy.

“We must develop a diplomacy that combines inclusiveness and strength to further enhance Japan’s presence in the international community,” he said.

Kishi, meanwhile, said he had spoken with the new prime minister about the best ways to continue to bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance amid the increasingly severe security environment in the region.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (right) and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi (second from right) hold a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from left) and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after their so-called two-plus-two meeting at the Iikura Guest House in Tokyo on March 16. | REUTERS
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (right) and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi (second from right) hold a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from left) and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after their so-called two-plus-two meeting at the Iikura Guest House in Tokyo on March 16. | REUTERS

Kishi, a strong supporter of Taiwan, has been a leading voice on the shifting balance of power in the Indo-Pacific between the U.S. and China, delivering warnings in no uncertain terms that Beijing is attempting to change the status quo in the region by force. Kishi, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will also continue to oversee growing security ties with both European and Southeast Asian partners concerned about Beijing’s moves.

“In keeping Motegi and Kishi in their respective posts, Kishida is certainly trying to reassure the U.S. and other key Japanese international partners that there will not be any major and abrupt changes in Japanese foreign policy,” said Mike Mochizuki, a Japan politics and foreign policy expert at George Washington University. “And the combination of Motegi and Kishi maintains a balance between moderates and hawks within the LDP and the ruling coalition.”

But even as he seeks a modicum of balance in his administration, Kishida himself underwent a noticeable shift from China dove to hawk during the LDP leadership election, referring to Beijing as presenting a challenge that is forcing Tokyo to re-examine its military capabilities and relationship with its superpower neighbor.

Although some observers had chalked this shift up to mere pandering for right-wing lawmakers’ votes, others say Kishida was adapting to the changing environment both within the party and among the public.

Japanese citizens and lawmakers from across the political spectrum have become increasingly concerned that China poses a security threat. The shifting views were seen in an annual poll late last year that saw an astounding 89.7% of Japanese surveyed say they had negative views of China, up 5 percentage points from a year before.

Most observers expect Kishida to continue using the kind of language on Beijing that was introduced by his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, while also focusing on a multilateral approach with like-minded democracies in grappling with the China challenge.

Akira Amari | REUTERS
Akira Amari | REUTERS

Kishida had generally prioritized economic relations with China as Japan’s top diplomat, but it’s unlikely that he will dramatically change the course set by his predecessors, said Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp, a visiting Japan fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Although he has stressed that dialogue and summits with China will be necessary, and I believe he will try to live up to this, at the same time he will keep the noticeably harder line against Beijing because I believe a reverse course will not be well accepted domestically as well as internationally,” she said.

The new administration is also expected to adopt a particular focus on economic security — a veiled counter to alleged technology theft by China — naming three-term lawmaker Takayuki Kobayashi to a newly established ministerial post focusing on the issue. On the human rights front, the new prime minister has also pledged to appoint a special adviser on the issue, a clear sign that alleged abuses by China, including in its far-west Xinjiang region, will see greater prominence under Kishida.

Ultimately, though, the chances of success for Kishida’s foreign policy initiatives will hinge largely on his ability to balance cooperation and confrontation with Beijing.

“Kishida understands how closely linked Japan’s economic interests are with China and how risky it would be for Japan to have an openly confrontational relationship with China,” said Mochizuki.

Indeed, while some have pointed to his move to oust party heavyweight and China dove Toshihiro Nikai as secretary-general as indicating a potential shift in tone, Kishida’s pick to fill his shoes was Akira Amari, an LDP veteran with similarly moderate views toward Japan’s neighbor, especially on the economic front.

Then-Deputy Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi (right) claps with China's foreign minister at the time, Yang Jiechi (left), and Cambodia's top diplomat, Hor Namhong, during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign minister's meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012. | REUTERS
Then-Deputy Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi (right) claps with China’s foreign minister at the time, Yang Jiechi (left), and Cambodia’s top diplomat, Hor Namhong, during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012. | REUTERS

Kishida has also replaced the comparatively youthful Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi with Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, a former diplomat and deputy foreign minister with extensive China experience — a possible signal that despite the tougher line on China, there remains room to work together on certain issues.

Yamaguchi “could play an effective role in promoting cooperation with China to deal with climate change issues,” Mochizuki said.

Overall, the new prime minister will also have a leg up on Suga, a former top government spokesman who took office with low expectations for him in the foreign policy arena. Kishida, who served as the country’s foreign minister for more than four years under Abe, is intimately familiar with the minutiae of Japan’s diplomatic apparatus.

“Kishida’s long experience as foreign minister will certainly make him much more comfortable about being on the international stage compared to Suga,” Mochizuki said. “He is likely to rely more on the advice of professional diplomats and the bureaucracy than Abe or someone like Kono if he had won the LDP race. Kishida will try to govern by consensus rather than by top-down unilateral decisions.”

But don’t expect much out of the gates in terms of bold foreign policy initiatives.

Kishida will first need to focus on reviving public trust in the LDP ahead of a crucial Lower House election, reportedly to be held on Oct. 31, after support faltered over the government’s COVID-19 response. This will mean domestic challenges, including resuscitating an economy in the doldrums, will be his immediate priority.

Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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