Bold foreign policy moves unlikely as Kishida bides time ahead of Upper House election

Despite his party’s projected loss of seats in Sunday’s Lower House election, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida looks set to dive straight into his diplomatic agenda, starting with a visit to Glasgow, Scotland, for the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference this week.

Kishida has laid out a number of pressing foreign policy and security priorities — from forging a tougher approach toward China to bolstering the U.S.-Japan alliance. But don’t expect too much in the way of radical changes from the new leader, with an Upper House election due by July.

Here’s a look at the top items on Kishida’s agenda, as well as some possible bumps in the road, as his administration seeks to realize a number of diplomatic and security initiatives.

Climate change

Kishida followed the proceedings of Saturday and Sunday’s Group of 20 meetings virtually and his first trip abroad as prime minister will be for COP26, with a leaders’ summit scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, when each leader will deliver national statements.

In Glasgow, Kishida could find himself under fire over Japan’s emissions reduction target — which some critics say is not enough — while also facing flak for the country’s stance on coal as part of its long-term energy plan.

Japan has set a target of a 46% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, based on the country’s 2013 emissions levels and has been reluctant to completely phase out coal in order to meet the Paris climate goals agreed to in 2015.

The Glasgow summit could see him unveil fresh pledges of more aid to developing countries to reduce their emissions and his trip is expected to elevate Japan’s role in fighting climate change, especially since China — whose leader is not attending — offered no new goals ahead of the meet.

“By attending COP26, Kishida will be seeking to raise Japan’s global profile in this critical area,” said Robert Ward, a London-based researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “In terms of political optics, this is even more important given that Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be attending.”

Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan during a speech at the White House in Washington on Aug. 31. | REUTERS
Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan during a speech at the White House in Washington on Aug. 31. | REUTERS

Ward said that Kishida’s presence at the climate summit also “sends an important message domestically with regard to the government’s commitment to Japan’s own energy policy,” which calls for renewable energy sources to account for between 36% and 38% by 2030 and for nuclear power to provide 20% to 22%.

Ward said the target is “ambitious, particularly given the intended role for nuclear power, which remains divisive in Japan, and will require some intense political focus and leadership to achieve.”

The key climate conference could give Kishida a prime opportunity to cement Japan’s targets on the world stage.

China and economic security

But the most-watched aspect of the Kishida administration’s foreign policy agenda will be how it deals with China. And for the fledgling prime minister, the first order of business is likely to be the low-hanging fruit of improving Japan’s economic security.

The two neighbors — the world’s second- and third-largest economies — have faced off over technology transfers, intellectual property protection and market openness and transparency.

Meanwhile, soured Sino-U.S. ties and the two powers’ ongoing trade war have also combined with the COVID-19 pandemic to make more visible already existing concerns in Tokyo over the stability of global supply chains crucial for Japanese businesses.

Kishida got off to a fast start on the issue, naming Takayuki Kobayashi to the new Cabinet post of economic security minister. Kobayashi is expected to lead the charge in realizing Kishida’s pledge to build a “resilient supply chain and draw up legislative bills that promote Japan’s economic security.”

Observers say he’s unlikely to face much trouble, since both the ruling bloc led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan agree on the need to fortify the country’s economic security.

“Everyone … agrees that that’s coming and there’s sort of a multiparty consensus on the need for something like that,” Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress in Washington, told an online panel last week.

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier sails through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa on its way to the Pacific in this photo released on April 4.  | DEFENSE MINISTRY JOINT STAFF OFFICE / VIA REUTERS
China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sails through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa on its way to the Pacific in this photo released on April 4. | DEFENSE MINISTRY JOINT STAFF OFFICE / VIA REUTERS

One focus of the economic security legislation will be protecting and developing advanced technologies. Experts say this is strategically important for Japan, given the advances that China is making in emerging technologies, many of which also have military applications.

“Kishida’s early moves suggest that economic security will be a core focus of his administration,” Ward said. “He will certainly be looking for policy wins here as he positions himself for the July 2022 Upper House poll.”

But one challenge for Kishida, Ward added, will be to ensure that economic security policy does not become a cover for protectionism. Another will be how to redefine the government’s relations with business.

“The government’s and businesses’ view of supply chain security may, for example, not always align,” he said. “The dual-use nature of some private-sector technology also suggests a strategic need for closer cooperation.”

For Kishida, though, the China challenge looms far larger than just economic security.

Tokyo must also figure out how to maintain stability in its crucial trade links with Beijing while simultaneously pushing back against its increasingly assertive behavior in the East and South China seas and near Taiwan, as well as speaking out on its alleged human rights abuses in its far-western Xinjiang region.

Kishida has so far telegraphed that his government will continue to “vigorously promote” Japan’s push for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” while working with allies and like-minded countries including the “Quad” framework, which groups Japan, Australia, India, and the United States, in response to China’s assertive territorial claims and military buildup.

He also hinted in an interview Friday that he would draw on his experience as foreign minister to deal with China, noting the importance of stability in the two neighbors’ relations.

“While we will say what needs to be said, we need to think about how to stabilize our relationship,” he said, noting the countries’ close economic ties and differing national interests. “It’s important to maintain a balance.”

That will be a tough order to fill for Kishida, who — despite his reputation as a dove — has joined a chorus of hawkish LDP lawmakers in targeting China, including on the issue of Taiwan.

But he could find an opening next year, when the two countries mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties. Convincing Xi to venture outside China for a long-delayed state visit to Japan, however, may prove a daunting task considering that he has yet to leave the country since the pandemic erupted.

Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers stand at the entrance gate of their Yonaguni base on Okinawa Prefecture's Yonaguni Island on Tuesday. | REUTERS
Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers stand at the entrance gate of their Yonaguni base on Okinawa Prefecture’s Yonaguni Island on Tuesday. | REUTERS

Military buildups

The prime minister has also taken up the pledges of his predecessors to continue to bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance — a vow that has taken on an even greater sense of urgency as China’s military modernization ramps up and the threat from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs grows with each new weapons test.

Kishida has repeatedly called the pact “the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomatic and security policies,” saying in a speech on Oct. 23 that he “will bring the Japan-U.S. alliance to a higher level.”

Last month, Kishida’s ruling 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. The United States has long urged Japan to spend more on its defense and any move by Tokyo to pump up budgets — and buy U.S.-made weapons — will be welcomed in Washington.

Kishida has also embraced his party’s campaign pledges of revising the country’s National Security Strategy, which serves as the main guideline for Japan’s security policy, as well as its National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program. All are due to be revised ahead of schedule, with the Kishida and top administration officials citing the “severe” regional security environment as the rationale.

But the prime minister has remained purposefully vague in setting timelines for many of these lofty goals, refusing to be drawn into committing to specific deadlines and instead calling for in-depth deliberations on issues such as the defense spending target and Japan acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases.

For China, though, Kishida’s message remains clear, regardless of the absence of a timeline: Tokyo is ready and willing to make dramatic policy shifts if needed to confront Beijing.

“Japan will continue to try to mark out its red lines on China’s attempts to change the status quo in the region and back these up with evidence of a strengthening of its own defense posture,” Ward said.

But Ward also noted that fraught Sino-U.S. relations “are not necessarily a bad thing for Japan,” provided Tokyo can maintain dialogue with Beijing and close relations with Washington.

“For Japan, having closer relations with both the U.S. and China than either has with the other increases Japanese leverage,” he said.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping waves from a vehicle as he reviews the troops at a military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019. | REUTERS
Chinese leader Xi Jinping waves from a vehicle as he reviews the troops at a military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People’s Republic of China in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019. | REUTERS

Upper House poll

But, at least for now, the Kishida government will have its hands full as it looks to prevent a sixth wave of the deadly coronavirus and reboot the economy — all while keeping one eye on yet another election, this one for the Upper House and due by next July.

This is likely to mean that Kishida — who emerged victorious in the September LDP presidential election due in large part to his status as the stability candidate — won’t undertake any massive foreign policy endeavors until after July, if even then.

“I don’t think you’re gonna see anything particularly bold or controversial, or anything that’s really gonna stir anything up before the Upper House election,” the Center for American Progress’ Harris said.

Rather, he is likely to bide his time until the conclusion of the July election, after which — assuming the ruling bloc emerges in a strong enough position — he will be less constrained to follow through on his diplomatic and security initiatives.

By successfully navigating his time in office and the Upper House election, Kishida “might be in a position to start … taking some risks without having to worry about facing the voters for a while,” Harris said.

“So that really is the time to watch, but before the Upper House election, it’s hard to expect too much in terms of bold policy.”

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