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In his autobiography, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reflects on his time as foreign minister, notably recalling an encounter with China’s chief diplomat Wang Yi.

The exact occasion wasn’t specified, but it was during a time when bilateral relations between the two countries were strained. Kishida, believing that better relations with China would lead to stability in the region, describes how he and Wang arranged a one-on-one meeting without interpreters by their sides. The Chinese diplomat, speaking in Japanese, remarked on how Kishida belonged to the Kochikai, the Liberal Democratic Party faction of which he was and still is leader.

“Mr. Kishida, you’re a member of Kochikai, so you will treat Japan’s relationship with China as important,” Wang said.

Kishida was aware that Wang did not speak Japanese in the presence of other Chinese officials, despite his counterpart’s fluency. Japan’s then-top diplomat appeared to be pleasantly surprised by Wang’s willingness to speak the language and the fact he remarked on the Kochikai, a group that has long cultivated ties with China — indeed, the significance of mentioning the faction at a time of strained ties was clearly not lost on Kishida.

The anecdote highlights how China regards the faction — one that champions its history of “economic diplomacy, lightly armed” based on regional dialogue — as important, as well as the country’s apparent hope of taking advantage of Kishida’s background to make a breakthrough in mending bilateral ties. Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a telephone conference with Kishida four days after he became prime minister, while Wang invited newly appointed Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi — also a Kochikai member — to visit China.

The Kochikai faction emphasizes listening to counterparts and tirelessly working to resolve issues. With this in mind, Kishida has espoused three principles for dealing with the world’s second-largest economy: saying what needs to be said, urging China to act responsibly and cooperating on matters of common interest.

But as Beijing demonstrates a seemingly insatiable appetite for throwing its economic and military weight around, both in Asia and beyond, Kishida faces a different world from before. He’s also confronted by a serious challenge: Can his vision, based on the Kochikai’s legacy and principles, endure in today’s fast-changing environment?

Factional influence

Kishida’s political outlook is rooted in the Kochikai, which was founded in 1957 by Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda. Past prime ministers from the group embraced the so-called Yoshida Doctrine developed under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, which emphasized economic recovery in the post-World War II era as the highest priority while maintaining Japan’s security relationship with its ally the United States.

In his autobiography, published in 2020, Kishida mentions how the group has played an even bigger role than most have realized in contributing to China’s economic success. Kishida recalled a conversation with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in which he gave credit to Japan’s economic aid to China, which was started in 1979 by Masayoshi Ohira, another Kochikai prime minister. The official development aid ensured “the maintenance and promotion of China’s reform and open-door policies, and has formed the foundation for supporting Japan-China relations,” Kishida said of his conversation with Li.

Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa (right) shakes hands with Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, in Tokyo in April 1992. | KYODO
Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa (right) shakes hands with Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, in Tokyo in April 1992. | KYODO

Japan’s relations with China were established in 1972 under Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Ohira, then foreign minister, traveled to China with him to sign the Japan-China Joint Communique and again visited China in 1974 to sign the Japan-China Trade Agreement.

Kiichi Miyazawa, prime minister between 1991 and 1993 and another prominent Kochikai politician, paved the way for then-Emperor Akihito to visit China in 1992. Despite Western countries applying economic sanctions on China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Miyazawa defied opposition both at home and from abroad to prioritize celebrating the 20-year anniversary of both countries establishing diplomatic relations.

Kishida highlights the faction’s history of valuing its relations with neighboring countries, stressing the importance of having a dialogue with them to induce changes.

“In some cases, we can avoid conflicts by carrying on the history of the Kochikai, which our predecessors left behind in Asian diplomacy,” Kishida wrote. “This tradition is still alive today.”

Foreign minister role

As much as Kishida is proud of the Kochikai’s history and his predecessors’ endeavors to build amicable ties with China, he knows firsthand that Japan’s neighbor has diverged from the path that those past prime ministers had hoped it would take.

Kishida became the nation’s chief diplomat in December 2012 after the Liberal Democratic Party led by Shinzo Abe won a general election that month by a landslide.

At that point, diplomatic relations between the two influential economies were strained over the contested Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea. Abe’s immediate predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, had declared earlier that year that Tokyo would nationalize the islets, infuriating Beijing. Chinese ships actively made incursions into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in protest.

About a month after assuming the Foreign Ministry portfolio, Kishida faced his first serious test. Japan accused a Chinese navy frigate of locking a weapon-targeting radar onto a Maritime Self-Defense Forces ship situated close to the disputed islands. Although the Chinese side denied this, Kishida was not convinced.

Then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi ahead of talks on July 25, 2016, in Vientiane, Laos. | KYODO
Then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi ahead of talks on July 25, 2016, in Vientiane, Laos. | KYODO

At the same time, the Foreign Ministry appeared eager to avoid an escalation in tensions. While condemning the incident, Kishida called for calm from the standpoint of a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” which was agreed between Abe and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2006. Hu and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda had also signed a joint statement in 2008 to promote peaceful coexistence and friendship for generations.

Kishida assured Beijing that Japan would keep “open the door for dialogue,” a phrase he used repeatedly up until and including 2017, the year he left his post.

“It is true that Japan-China relations are currently in a very difficult phase, but we recognize that this bilateral relationship between Japan and China is one of the most important bilateral relationships,” Kishida said during a news conference in February 2013.

In his autobiography, Kishida named China as “undoubtedly” the most difficult country to negotiate with.

Kishida and Wang, the top Chinese diplomat, met for the first time on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in the summer of 2014. The Chinese side refused to hold a formal meeting, but Kishida made his way to the hotel where the Chinese delegation was staying, convinced that foreign ministers should strive toward building a strong relationship, especially at a time when bilateral relations are tense.

Wang reluctantly agreed to talk but refused to recognize the encounter as an official bilateral meeting. Kishida persistently told Wang that restating their positions on contentious issues would be pointless and that they should instead seek cooperation in areas where that was possible. With economic interests in mind, bilateral relations improved from “competition to cooperation” under the Abe administration.

On the other hand, the security situation did not improve dramatically. In November 2013, China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, prompting protest and a warning from Kishida that its establishment was “dangerous … escalates the situation and could cause unintended consequences.” When the proposal for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank spearheaded by China was unveiled, Kishida was skeptical and called for “careful deliberation.” China continued to dispatch its vessels to near the Senkakus.

Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira (left) receives a picture of a panda from Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng in Beijing in December 1979. | KYODO
Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira (left) receives a picture of a panda from Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng in Beijing in December 1979. | KYODO

Correspondingly, the language used by Kishida to describe Tokyo’s ties with Beijing during regular news conferences shifted. He characterized the Japan-China relationship as one of the most important bilateral relations on seven occasions in 2013, but this expression was eventually effectively ditched, except for at a March 2016 news conference. Instead, he only went as far as describing ties as “important.”

The phrase “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” was also used less and less.

Kishida’s tenure as foreign minister was “a period when it became more evident than before that China had begun to gain strength both economically and militarily,” said Kiyoto Tsuji, a Lower House lawmaker and Kochikai member close to the prime minister. “So, this must have had an impact on his own view of China.”

Dealing with China as prime minister

Four days after taking office, Kishida held a half-hour teleconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first by a Japanese leader since September 2020, shortly after Yoshihide Suga became prime minister.

According to a readout, Kishida “expressed his candid views on various concerns,” such as the Senkakus and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, most notably the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

With China in mind, Kishida also tapped former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani as a special adviser on human rights issues. The prime minister recently decided to dispatch Olympic officials to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing — but crucially no government officials — in an attempt to strike a diplomatic balance in Japan’s relationships with both the U.S. and China.

In parliamentary speeches and debates thereafter, Kishida has stuck with the set of three principles in terms of dealing with China. But so far, Kishida has yet to reveal a comprehensive strategy.

This year marks 50 years since the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and Kishida is faced with a series of consequential decisions that will set the tone for Japan’s future relationship with China. If Kishida appears to be overly friendly toward China, he could risk alienating the conservative wing of the LDP, thereby possibly destabilizing his power base. If he comes across as too aggressive, he could risk upsetting the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito.

It is premature to dismiss Kishida as being weak on China, said Masahisa Sato, an LDP Upper House lawmaker and the head of the party’s foreign affairs division.

“I think it is probably quite different from the image you have of the Kochikai when Prime Minister Miyazawa was leading it,” Sato said. “When (Kishida) was foreign minister, he was a foreign minister at a time when Japan-China relations were rather bad. … He must have seen a lot of things and had the most information as the foreign minister who was serving during a period when bilateral relations were strained.”

Sato, a leading advocate for beefing up Japan’s defense capabilities, called on Kishida to demonstrate stronger leadership on human rights issues, including by passing legislation that would enable the government to employ economic sanctions and ban the entry of government officials accused of violating human rights.

“Japan’s approach to human rights up until now has been based on dialogue and cooperation. When the other side is China, it is not dialogue and cooperation, but ‘silence and two-timing’ (with the U.S.),” Sato said. “We aren’t satisfied with (the administration’s human rights policies) at all.”

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