Prime Minister Fumio Kishida used his final official news conference of 2021 to outline his goal of making 2022 “a year of actively promoting summit diplomacy.” But whether he’ll be able to follow through on an ambitious foreign policy and defense goals remains unclear, as the omicron coronavirus variant threatens a jam-packed agenda.

Kishida, who has gotten off to a quick start in his push to bolster U.S.-Japan relations, will be looking to further boost the alliance, which he has called “the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy and security.” His first order of business will be securing a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.

But the prime minister, whose ruling Liberal Democratic Party gained a strong mandate in October’s Lower House, will have to balance his desire to strengthen the U.S. alliance with Tokyo’s ties with China — its top trading partner and Washington’s strategic rival.

Security strategy

The Kishida administration has also promised to review and revise the National Security Strategy, which outlines the country’s long-term plan in the field of diplomacy, within the next year. The document hasn’t been revised since it’s 2013 adoption under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The prime minister and other top officials have repeatedly referred to a “harsh security environment” as a rationale for revising the strategy, saying that the government will keep all options on the table, including acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases in response to an imminent attack.

Along with that review, the government will also be looking to update two other key security documents within the year: the National Defense Program Guidelines, which sets out the basic policy on the country’s defense, and the Medium-Term Defense Program, which specifies development plans and necessary expenses over a five-year span.

An LDP panel began discussions on the documents in December and will speak with experts in a bid to craft a proposal by May that will act as a basis for revising the three documents.

U.S President Joe Biden holds a press conference in Rome on Oct. 31. | REUTERS
U.S President Joe Biden holds a press conference in Rome on Oct. 31. | REUTERS

Observers say the revisions to the three documents could have huge ramifications for Tokyo’s foreign and defense policies that last far into the future.

“It is no understatement to say that these decisions to be made under Kishida’s watch will be consequential for Japan’s foreign and national security policy for the next decade, possibly longer,” according to Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank’s Japan program.

But Kishida will also have to keep one eye on an Upper House election expected sometime in the summer as he attempts to retain his post and avoid becoming one of Japan’s “revolving-door” prime ministers.

The pandemic and the emergence of the omicron variant, however, could also hamper Kishida’s envisioned timeline — and even threaten his position.

Strengthening the U.S. alliance

The prime minister, widely viewed as a dovish figure ahead of his election as LDP president in September, has followed in the footsteps of his two immediate predecessors by emphasizing a strong focus on the need to bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance.

In just over two months since the Oct. 31 Lower House poll, Kishida has already managed to secure an early five-year deal that will see Japan boost its contribution for hosting U.S. military forces stationed in the country, agreeing to provide ¥1.05 trillion from fiscal 2022, which begins in April, to fiscal 2026.

A deal had proven elusive under the 2016-2020 administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who reportedly had demanded that Tokyo more than triple its payments for hosting American forces. Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration inked a one-year stopgap agreement.

The roughly 5% increase from Tokyo and the speed with which the agreement was signed signals the importance of the alliance as the two countries look to confront an increasingly assertive China. The Kishida government also said the traditional term for the payments — or “sympathy budget” — would be renamed the “budget for strengthening the alliance.”

A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden via video link, at a restaurant in Beijing in November. | REUTERS
A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden via video link, at a restaurant in Beijing in November. | REUTERS

The two allies’ had been expected to sign the agreement at “two-plus-two” talks in Washington on Jan. 7 involving the countries’ top envoys and defense chiefs. However, the spread of the omicron variant has reportedly prompted the two sides to instead hold an online meeting.

The talks are expected to focus on China and deepening cooperation in the domains of space and cyberspace. The Japanese side will also be keen to highlight the fact that its latest defense budget hit a record for the eighth straight year, with spending rising 1.1%.

The LDP for the first time included a policy in its election manifesto of aiming to double the country’s defense budget to 2% of gross domestic product, though that goal appears far off for the time being.

Taiwan will also likely feature prominently in the meeting, including in terms of plans to begin work to formalize a joint operations plan between the U.S. military and Self-Defense Forces in the event of a contingency over the self-ruled island. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Japan has grown increasingly concerned over the Chinese military’s moves near Taiwan, which LDP heavyweights, including Abe, say could explode into conflict and in turn threaten the security of Japan. Kishida, himself, has said Taiwan could be “the next big problem” for Japan.

Leader-level talks are also in the works, with Kishida calling an in-person summit with Biden in the near term “extremely important” as he seeks to “foster a personal relationship of trust.”

Kishida told the Dec. 21 news conference that he also hopes to use the talks to further strengthen the alliance’s “deterrence and response capabilities” and to take cooperation “to a new level” toward realizing a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

But the prime minister noted in the same speech that omicron has taken an early January summit off the table as the U.S. grapples with a record surge in cases.

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks past an honor guard as he arrives for a ceremony in Beijing in September. | REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping walks past an honor guard as he arrives for a ceremony in Beijing in September. | REUTERS

The China challenge

From Beijing’s ramped-up moves near the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands to the growing prospect of military conflict erupting over Taiwan, Kishida has quickly been schooled in the ways of a China that is far more assertive and powerful than it was even during his 2012-2017 tenure as foreign minister.

Despite the steep learning curve, the prime minister has been quick to respond.

Out of the gates, he created an economic security Cabinet post, named a top adviser on human rights issues with a specific focus on China, and effectively joined the U.S. in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, though Japan purposefully refrained from using that language.

But with Beijing, Kishida will also need to find a way to strike a balance and maintain a sound Sino-Japanese relationship. He could find an opening this year, as the neighbors mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties.

“I believe that it’s important to continue to make efforts to realize a stable relationship between Japan and China, while saying what needs to be said,” Kishida told reporters last month. “In accordance with this basic stance, I’d like to think carefully about how we should conduct diplomacy in the coming year, the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations.”

But the prime minister has been mum about how exactly he will do this. Doing so will also be increasingly difficult as Washington’s relationship with Beijing continues to deteriorate and the pandemic precludes in-person meetings, including any visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Japan.

His administration has also agreed with Beijing to set up a military hotline by the end of the year, creating another mechanism to defuse potential crises that could emerge over the Senkakus and Taiwan.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Glasgow, Scotland, in November | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Glasgow, Scotland, in November | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Ultimately, Kishida will need to walk a fine line with China by both standing up to Beijing and actively encouraging communication.

“Given Japan’s domestic and diplomatic challenges, the Kishida administration will have to choose a hybrid policy that skillfully mixes deterrence and dialogue,” Madoka Fukuda, a professor of international politics and China studies at Hosei University, wrote in December.

The two Koreas

When it comes to Japan’s soured relationship with South Korea, an improvement in ties appears unlikely before President Moon Jae-in’s single five-year term ends in May.

Moon has rebuffed calls by Japan to stick to previous promises, including a 1965 bilateral agreement that normalized relations — which Tokyo claims settled the issue of wartime labor compensation “completely and finally” — and the 2015 “comfort women” deal to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue concerning women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.

Kishida, meanwhile, has largely stuck to the same firm stance as his predecessors, leaving the relationship in a deep freeze over the historical issues that have periodically confounded ties.

In an interview with Kyodo News on Tuesday, Kishida stressed the need for South Korea to honor its agreements, “or any discussion from now on will be meaningless.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in makes a toast with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a luncheon in North Korea in September 2018. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in makes a toast with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a luncheon in North Korea in September 2018. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Kishida’s tenure so far has provided little in the way of near-term optimism.

After the chief of South Korea’s national police agency visited disputed islands in the Sea of Japan in November, Tokyo put virtually all attempts at dialogue on the back burner, canceling a planned joint news conference with senior diplomats from the neighbors and their U.S. ally and ending the prospect of early telephone talks between the two countries’ foreign ministers.

It’s unclear if Moon’s successor could offer a chance at resetting the relationship, but the two candidates in the March election have both said improving ties will be one of their goals if elected.

Although the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung has appeared to take a harder line against Japan, at times questioning Tokyo’s trustworthiness as a partner, people close to him say he would be eager to bolster security cooperation with Japan and the U.S.

His foe from the conservative opposition People Power Party, Yoon Seok-youl, has touted the importance of the relationship, saying that revitalizing ties would be one of his first tasks.

“If I become president, I will set out to improve South Korea-Japan relations as soon as I take office,” Yoon said in November.

For both candidates, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs could offer a chance for security cooperation with Japan and provide a steppingstone to improving ties in other areas of the relationship.

In recent years, the nuclear-armed North has built up an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of both medium- and shorter-range missiles that analysts say are designed to overwhelm and evade the defenses of the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

Growing concern over these moves in both Seoul and Tokyo has been highlighted by rising defense budgets and improvements in military capabilities. Trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. — at least as an initial step — may be the best hope of stabilizing Japan-South Korea relations.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Canberra in December | POOL / VIA REUTERS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Canberra in December | POOL / VIA REUTERS

In one potentially bright spot for the relationship, arrangements are reportedly underway for the three countries’ defense chiefs to meet in Hawaii later this month in what would be the first such meeting since November 2019.

Meanwhile, the prospects of Kishida clinching a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear dim despite the prime minister’s offers to meet “unconditionally.” Kim continues to grapple with crushing sanctions over his nuclear weapons program and the effects of his decision to close the country’s border after the outbreak of the pandemic.

Bold initiatives hinge on election

As the year unfolds, Kishida is expected to continue to slowly but steadily build on the security and diplomatic policy foundations laid by his predecessors over the last nine years until at least the conclusion of the summer’s Upper House election.

If he can weather the COVID-19 storm, ameliorate domestic concerns and lead the ruling bloc to victory in that poll, he will be far less constrained in following through on bolder initiatives that could rewrite Japan’s regional and global role.

If not, Kishida may instead find himself in a perilous political position — with many of the audacious and pressing diplomatic and security initiatives delayed or diluted.

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