Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 30 September 2021

 Japan’s push back on China right

It would be wrong to expect any radical policy changes from Fumio Kishida, a consensus politician who holds the record as his country’s longest-serving post-war foreign minister and who is set to become Japan’s new prime minister on Monday. But it could hardly be more significant that following strong statements by him on China and Taiwan during his campaign for leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Beijing moved swiftly on Thursday to warn him not to “push China-Japan relations towards hostility”.

Apparently referring to statements by Mr Kishida in which he highlighted Taiwan as “the frontline in the struggle by democracies to resist authoritarianism’s advance”, the febrile Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times declared: “He should not be the leader who ignites new fires of hatred between China and Japan, nor the one who pushes China and Japan into an all-out confrontation.” Mr Kishida should ignore such attempts to intimidate him before he has even been sworn in by Emperor Naruhito. His statements on China and Taiwan, as well as Russia, were well founded.

Beijing may be peeved (is it ever anything else?), but Mr Kishida, in taking a significantly harder and more outspoken line than outgoing prime minister Yoshihide Suga, was right to warn that Japan needed to be prepared “for a scenario in which it was hit first and was expecting further missile attacks”. He hinted strongly at the need for Japan to achieve the strategic resources to “block the other side’s missile attack ability”.

China and Russia were “at the forefront of the advance of the authoritarianism that democracies such as the US, Japan, India, Australia and Western European nations needed to combat. The frontline of the clash between authoritarianism and democracy is Asia, particularly Taiwan”, Mr Kishida added in an interview on the eve of the LDP’s leadership ballot. Japan continually needed to update its preparations for a conflict involving Taiwan, he warned.

Mr Kishida’s strong reassertion of Japan’s strategic concerns in the face of Chinese aggression across the Indo-Pacific could hardly be more significant when, as last week’s Quad leaders summit in Washington showed, there is a need for much more to be done to meet the Chinese challenge. While insisting he wants to maintain the best possible trade ties with China, Mr Kishida doubtless has angered Beijing by backing Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also has made it known that he wants to boost Japan’s Self-Defence Force, including developing longer-range missiles. Published reports have indicated that he also could adopt a proposal by his main rival in the leadership race, Taro Kono, and follow Australia’s example in trying to get nuclear-powered submarines. It has been suggested he could seek Japanese entry into the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance

Given Mr Kishida’s long experience as foreign minister and, for a time, defence minister, there can be no surprise in his preoccupation with the strategic challenges facing Japan and the region at a time of unrelenting Chinese aggression. It would be unfair to suggest that Mr Suga, during his brief and troubled interregnum, was not similarly committed. But it does suggest a return to the way former prime minister Shinzo Abe prioritised Japan’s security interests during the nine years he was in office. The immediate challenge facing Mr Kishida will be to lead the LDP into a general election, which must be held before November 28. Given that the party has been in power almost continuously since it was founded in 1955, few doubt he will get the mandate he wants. Although he was Mr Abe’s chosen successor, Mr Suga was clearly uncomfortable as prime minister. He lost the confidence of LDP leaders.

With Mr Kishida’s strong views on security and Japan’s need to be able to defend itself against Chinese aggression, his victory is of major significance to the Indo-Pacific. Alliances such as the Quad will be strengthened immeasurably by his clear-eyed determination on crucial issues such as Taiwan’s freedom.

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