Sino-Japanese Review

Kishida’s China Policy Takes Shape: Old Wine in New Wineskins?

Welcome to installment XXXVI (December 2021) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective.

Following the LDP’s surprisingly strong showing in this fall’s general election, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has consolidated his grip on power and has started to set his administration’s guidelines and priorities. In doing so, he has been eager to distinguish himself from his predecessor-but-one in power, Abe Shinzo, who remains a dominant figure in the LDP. This includes Japan’s China policy, where Kishida has sought to signal that he will be his own man. Look beneath the surface, though, and Kishida is not stepping too far from Abe’s shadow. Tokyo’s approach to dealing with its neighbor will for now remain a pragmatic mix of diplomatic engagement and confrontation in the security realm.

Kishida’s most significant foreign policy move so far has been the appointment of Hayashi Yoshimasa as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Hayashi has been described by some as “pro-China” but this image is somewhat misleading. He was until his appointment the chair of a parliamentary group promoting Sino-Japanese friendship, but is also a graduate from Harvard University and former defense minister who is well known in Washington. He has stressed the importance of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance and improving deterrence against a potential Chinese threat. His appointment did face opposition from Abe and Aso Taro, another key figure in the LDP known for his hawkish views on China, but more for reasons of party politics and personal rivalry than because of the direction he would give to Japanese foreign policy.

The decision by Kishida to go ahead and pick Hayashi regardless was therefore likely made first and foremost with party management in mind and was a way to signal that the new Prime Minister is willing and capable of going against the country’s two most influential politicians. Suggesting to China that his administration would remain open to diplomatic engagement was another added benefit. The appointment of Nakatani Gen as special adviser for human rights aimed to reassure another audience, namely Japan’s Western partners. Nakatani is co-chair of an “inter-parliamentary alliance” which aims to deepen the international dialogue on China policy. He was a natural choice for the newly created position which shows that Japan shares concerns with Western democracies about human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party and would be willing to improve coordination with them. However, Kishida also made it clear that his government would not adopt any major new human rights legislation, demonstrating that there are limits to how far he is willing to go in practice.

The growing dominance of hawkish voices in Tokyo has not yet translated into significant policy change. But pressure on the government to adopt a more hardline posture toward China continues to grow.

Beyond the signaling game, then, Kishida’s China’s policy looks set to remain broadly in line with that of the former Abe administration. As the Prime Minister suggested in a recent speech to the Diet, he will seek to maintain stability in an all-important relationship while urging China to “act responsibly” regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the Senkaku/Diaoyu island territorial dispute and Taiwan. It appears that the growing dominance of hawkish voices in Tokyo has not yet translated into significant policy change. But pressure on the government to adopt a more hardline posture toward China keeps growing.

No one exemplifies this better than Abe himself. During his time as prime minister, he was the architect of Japan’s pragmatic and balanced policy toward China, but has more recently become a vocal critic. He has attracted Beijing’s ire with pointed comments about Taiwan and called for a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. This was likely meant to put pressure on Kishida and his cabinet, which seems to have settled on sending only low-level officials while avoiding an official “boycott”. Ironically, this is probably the stance Abe would have taken if he had been in a similar position. Now that he need not assume the role of “responsible statesman” he has turned China hawk in chief.

Regardless of his decision for the Olympics, political dynamics in Tokyo will complicate Kishida’s task next year which will be delicate for Sino-Japanese relations. On one hand, 2022 will be the 50th anniversary of normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties, and the leaders of both sides have pledged to use the occasion to strengthen ties, although the spread of COVID-19 will limit the number and nature of events that can be held. China will in any case likely push for a show of friendship to mark the occasion, perhaps with a long-delayed “fifth political document.”  

On the other hand, a new Japanese national security strategy is set to be unveiled toward the end of the year, and is likely to detail the challenges posed by China in stark terms. The LDP’s dominant conservative wing’s desire to align more closely with Western partners and to push back more forcefully against China’s human rights abuses and maritime assertiveness, together with growing concerns about Japan’s economic dependence on China, suggest a shift toward a more confrontational strategy. This will impose some difficult choices on the Kishida administration. The Prime Minister likes to boast about his ability to listen and build consensus. He will need to draw on these if he is to design a new China policy that his party can get behind without causing a rupture with Beijing.

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Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.

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Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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