PM Kishida’s Indo-Pacific legacy vs politics in Japan - Hindustan Times

PM Kishida’s Indo-Pacific legacy vs politics in Japan

Jan 08, 2024 10:10 PM IST

Japan's PM Fumio Kishida has not shied away from stepping up Japan’s Indo-Pacific game. And that will define his legacy.

The conversation on global power politics will continue to be dominated by wars, as the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts spill over to 2024 shaping the Euro-Atlantic and West Asian security architecture respectively. But the other regional theatre that will be packed with action in 2024 is East Asia as the election season sets in.

Japan's prime minister Fumio Kishida addresses the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City.(Reuters) PREMIUM
Japan's prime minister Fumio Kishida addresses the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City.(Reuters)

The Sino-United States (US) strategic contest looms in the backdrop of the election in Taiwan, which will set the tone for future cross-strait relations. Amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea, the regional balance also hinges on the trajectory of post-Jokowi Indonesia. Meanwhile, the Japanese prime minister (PM) Fumio Kishida will aim to secure another term as the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) president in September even as the domestic political pulse presents a litmus test for him.

For Washington’s regional allies, the key focus remains the partisan fault lines in the US Congress over foreign policy priorities and the uncertainty ensuing from Donald Trump’s shadow over the 2024 presidential election. Washington’s China strategy will continue to remain the centrepiece of policy debates as President Xi Jinping is determined to seize “strategic opportunities” and further raise Beijing’s global power and influence anchored in Chinese characteristics and values. Additionally, Pyongyang’s sharp rhetoric at the latest plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party demonstrates Kim Jong-Un’s undeterred ambition of advancing the nuclear and missile programme. As a possible China-Russia-North Korea arc takes shape in Northeast Asia, Washington and its East Asian allies are reinforcing the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral.

Marching into 2024, maintaining a favourable regional strategic balance will be of utmost priority for Washington’s allies like Japan as President Joe Biden will remain consumed by the uphill battle for re-election. However, one of the primary components to secure its regional and national interests is to ensure political stability at home. This is turning out to be a monumental challenge for Kishida.

As he grapples with the erosion of public trust and consequential dip in his cabinet’s approval ratings, navigating from one crisis to the other, be it the ongoing fundraising scandal within the ruling LDP factions and urgency of tightening the Political Funds Control Act or the fallout from the Unification Church controversy, the fundamental question is how long will he last.

More importantly, the question concerning the future leadership within the ruling LDP, with potential challengers like Toshimitsu Motegi and Taro Kono on the horizon will not keep Kishida’s position secured for long. Moreover, Shigeru Ishiba, often with better public support, may throw his hat in the leadership mix and complicate the game for Kishida. As LDP’s Policy Research Council chief Kisaburo Tokai argues the case for reforms within the party, kingmakers like Taro Aso will influence the future leadership race. Adding to Kishida’s troubles is maintaining the balance with the LDP’s junior coalition partner, the Komeito party in the post-Ikeda era. Additionally, even as the LDP thrives on the weakness of political opposition in Japanese democracy, Ichiro Ozawa is posturing to raise a formidable challenge to the LDP in the election. While the demand for greater transparency and accountability in political funding processes will continue to drive the conversation, addressing entrenched structural issues in the economy and raising productivity will also test Kishida’s mettle.

This rocky political canvas will shape the forthcoming Diet (national legislature of Japan) debates and several crucial policy decisions will take a backseat, which may have implications for Japan’s defence and diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific as the battle over values, norms and narratives sharpen between the US and its allies and China. For instance, Kishida has already shelved the decision on a tax hike aimed at fuelling increased defence spending despite the previous discussion at the party’s tax system research commission and the finance ministry regarding the timeline.

While Kishida rallied support in DC and Europe with his banner of “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”, and Japan’s revised National Security Strategy (NSS) cleared the path for raising defence spending to 2% of GDP, garnering the resources is posing a challenge. The initial plan was to generate around $6.8 billion annually by raising corporate, income and tobacco taxes.

However, this does not take away from Kishida’s report card in the Indo-Pacific. Any fair assessment of Kishida would argue that he did manage to make some decisive moves on the defence and diplomacy front amid the Russia-Ukraine war and escalating Sino-US tensions concerning Taiwan. With a revised NSS in December 2022, a New Plan for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in 2023, and Japan’s leadership at the G7, Kishida has made considerable progress in positioning Tokyo as a decisive player in the US-led rules-based order.

From outlining the economic security law to buttressing the defence industrial base with the UK-Italy-Japan next-generation fighter jet collaboration, or easing guidelines on the export of licenced defence equipment such as PAC-2, and possibly PAC-3, to the US, and strategically employing Official Security Assistance (OSA), Kishida has not shied away from stepping up Japan’s Indo-Pacific game. And that will define his legacy.

Titli Basu is an associate professor at JNU. The views expressed are personal

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