Kishida in Kantei: What can the Indo-Pacific partners expect from Japan?
Fumio Kishida will walk into Kantei as prime minister (PM) on October 4 following a high-voltage political race, marked by murky factional political culture of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Charting his road to power, Kishida positioned himself on the right side of the kingmakers. But that is only half the battle.
Measuring up to the burden of expectations will demand deft leadership, bold strategic vision, and intellectual confidence to conceive innovative policies, as Japan navigates the fluid geostrategic and geo-economic matrix in a post-pandemic world.
As the longest-serving foreign minister in the post-war era in Shinzo Abe cabinet, and LDP’s former policy research council chief, Kishida has hands-on experience in pursuing Tokyo’s national interest in the United States (US)-China-Japan triangle.
Building his core team, Kishida left behind the fading “shadow shogun” Nikai, taking away some steam from LDP’s pro-China camp. Meanwhile, Abe’s crafty moves in shaping party politics these past few weeks further consolidated his power. As Team Kishida is in the making, Abe’s confidants are now placed in key party positions, enabling his greater control on the party command.
Culling out from the political debate in the run-up to the party election, what can Indo-Pacific partners expect from Kishida on key verticals — Japan’s role in the post-Covid-19 order; Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP); national and economic security?
As the third-largest economy, Japan will be positioned at the forefront of delivering global public goods, from financing safe vaccine manufacturing to advancing carbon neutrality. As one of Asia’s oldest democracies, Tokyo will remain an ardent advocate of universal values as the battle of narratives between democracies and authoritarian systems sharpen. And as a beneficiary of the US-led liberal order, Japan will not be a bystander as Beijing engineers a Sino-centric order by offering “Chinese solutions” to global governance.
In the post-war decades, American primacy in East Asia witnessed the ascent of Japan, and subsequently, China. In contrast to Beijing, Tokyo refrained from translating its economic prowess into global strategic ambitions, and instead served as a stabiliser.
Given the competing perceptions of the regional order in Tokyo and Beijing, intellectual foresight in Japan brought the Indo-Pacific construct to high table. Japan demonstrated forward thinking in balancing values and strategy with its conceptualisation of “Confluence of the Two Seas”, which subsequently germinated into FOIP that dominates strategic thinking in the power corridors of not just Tokyo, but also Quad and European capitals.
Today’s Quad — which maps a collaborative agenda delivering rich dividends in creating public goods — is yet another strategic plank anchored in Japan’s proposition of weaving a “democratic security diamond” a decade back. FOIP and Quad owe much to former PM Abe’s value-based grand strategy. Both will remain key templates in Kishida’s statecraft, and India will continue to enjoy high priority in Japan’s strategic calculations.
As foreign minister, Kishida was a pivotal player in Team Abe, when qualitative depth was added to India-Japan relations by elevating it to a special strategic and global partnership, and subsequently, India-Japan Indo-Pacific Vision 2025 was conceived. As PM, Kishida will take forward this high-powered action-oriented partnership as the two countries celebrate their 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2022.
With East Asia emerging as one of the primary theatres of Sino-US strategic competition, Tokyo is ready to scale up as a proactive ally in Washington’s great power management strategy. Guided by the principle of positive pacifism, Japan is expected to further adjust its post-war exclusively defence-oriented posture. Tokyo will also double down on nurturing the Indo-Pacific networks that it weaved in Asia and Europe to optimise security insurances and economic gains.
While there is a broad consensus on the China challenge, effective coordination among allies is imperative, for instance, in crafting the Indo-Pacific economic architecture. Guarding the gold standards of trade, Japan will have to hold the fort amid high politics as China and Taiwan enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) game while Tokyo still awaits Washington’s return.
One of Kishida’s core tasks will be revisiting the national security strategy. Tough questions await defence planners. This includes enhancing deterrence within the alliance to effectively manage Chinese grey zone tactics and dealing with proliferation in the Korean peninsula; stitching together joint operation plans in case of a Taiwan contingency; and raising the defence budget to bolster missile defence.
As Japan embraces a proactive role in regional security, Kishida will have to invest in rebuilding trust with Seoul, since security coordination between US-Japan-South Korea is key to maintaining strategic stability in the Peninsula.
In framing the economic security agenda, Japan will work with the US, Taiwan, Australia, and India to control the choke points in the global supply chain of semiconductors, advanced batteries, rare earth and strategic minerals, pharmaceuticals and beyond 5G solutions. Without engaging in a zero-sum game, managing risks and strengthening national security will be the key determinant while doing business with China.
Nonetheless, Japan’s leadership in the Indo-Pacific theatre will be contingent on domestic political stability. Navigating the monumental economic, demographic, and inoculation challenges amid Covid-19 will be Kishida’s top job as he is responsible for steering the LDP victory in the Lower House election in the coming weeks and the Upper House election in 2022. In domestic politics, will his proposition of advancing “new Japanese-style capitalism” and “Kishidanomics” be enough to convince the electorate? It is time to walk the talk as Japan cannot afford leadership deficit at this crucial juncture.
Titli Basu is an associate fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
The views expressed are personal