Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is struggling to produce results in his policy of “new-era realism diplomacy,” hampered by the global spread of omicron, the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant.
The persistent COVID-19 pandemic has forced the prime minister to be patient on the diplomatic front, according to sources.
It remains to be seen whether Kishida will be able to reap gains from face-to-face diplomatic events, which are highly appealing to the public, ahead of this summer’s election for the House of Councilors, the sources added.
“I’m keen to step up in-person summit diplomacy,” Kishida said in his New Year’s news conference on Jan. 4. But at the same time, Kishida announced a decision to give up plans to visit the United States or Australia before this year’s regular Diet session begins next Monday.
Kishida held an online meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Jan. 6, instead of visiting the country for an in-person bilateral summit.
Face-to-face summits could make a favorable impression and help boost the popularity of Kishida’s administration in the run-up to the Upper House election, which is expected to be the biggest political event in Japan this year.
“We have no choice but to use online opportunities for the time being,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said, with disappointment, in the wake of the cancellations of Kishida’s plans to visit the United States or Australia.
Since taking office in early October 2021, Kishida has traveled abroad only once — to Scotland in November for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26. On that occasion, he held brief talks with U.S. President Joe Biden.
While a U.S. visit is expected to remain the top priority on Kishida’s diplomatic agenda, Tokyo and Washington have been unable to work on setting a specific schedule, due in part to surging COVID-19 cases in the United States.
Although some Japanese government officials are floating the idea of Kishida visiting the United States during Japan’s three-day weekend from March 19 to 21, the prime minister is highly likely to remain busy with parliamentary discussions until the enactment of the fiscal 2022 state budget, expected to come in late March.
“Some countries will likely resume face-to-face diplomacy once the coronavirus crisis dies down, but we don’t know how the situation in Japan will be then,” one source said.
Kishida apparently aims to make diplomatic achievements through upcoming events such as a summit, possibly in Japan, of the Quad framework, which also includes the United States, Australia and India; potential visits abroad during Japan’s Golden Week holiday period, between late April and early May, and a summit of the Group of Seven major industrial nations in Germany in June.
During the Jan. 6 online meeting, Kishida told Morrison he looks forward to meeting with the Australian leader in person in the near future. But Kishida will have to remain concerned for a while about the course of the COVID-19 situation both at home and abroad, pundits have said.
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