Kishida is highly likely to take Abe’s Indo-Pacific legacy ahead. This was accentuated with his victory speech post winning the LDP presidentship wherein he stated that ‘realisation of a free and open Indo-Pacific’ is a key priority and challenge.
Japan’s upcoming elections will be crucial in determining not only the future course of the country but also the “leader of free Asia”. The foremost contender to replace Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as representative of the ruling (and Japan’s most popular) political party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is Japan’s longest serving foreign minister, Fumio Kishida. Kishida defeated LDP senior leaders, Taro Kono, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda to win LDP’s nomination with substantial support from major factions, and now ranks at the front of the race for Japanese Prime Ministership. Notably, Kishida’s comfortable victory over Kono in the second round of internal elections showed the immense support he enjoys, particularly amongst lawmakers of the Party, but also beyond. How will Japan’s foreign policies take shape under Kishida’s potential leadership? How will the foreign policy veteran navigate the challenging geo-political, geo-economic and geostrategic environment? What will be the key areas of focus for the new Japanese government?
Kishida—at present 64 years of age—has held senior roles in the Japanese government for long: apart from his charge with the Foreign Ministry, he has also served briefly as the Minister of Defence before taking charge as LDP’s policy chief. Compared to Suga—who was Abe’s right-hand man and a seasoned politician—Kishida brings his skills as an ex-diplomat to the forefront, providing a nexus between balancing foreign affairs against national defence, coupled with his thorough understanding of how the LDP factions work. Such an all-round knowledge base potentially hints at one conclusion: Japan’s “revolving door” prime ministerial leadership could once again find closure—as it did with Shinzo Abe’s second stint at the job—under Kishida.
Ultimately, Kishida may continue to remain Japan’s Prime Minister for a few years, bringing stability and continuity in Japanese foreign policy. He is highly likely to take Abe’s Indo-Pacific legacy ahead; this fact was accentuated with his victory speech post winning the LDP presidentship wherein he stated that “realisation of a free and open Indo-Pacific” is a key priority and challenge. However, to achieve such a goal, he needs to manage Indo-Pacific alliance formulations effectively while paying close attention to domestic issues such as proper handling of the Covid-19 pandemic (lack of which, it can be argued, was a major reason behind Suga’s resignation). While domestically Kishida is tasked with rebuilding the battered image of LDP—his famous “have a special skill of listening to people” statement is already doing rounds within Japan, where citizens for the past year have complained of not feeling heard—internationally, Kishida’s focus must remain on certain key challenges that Tokyo faces.
Unlike Suga’s brand of being a “continuity leader”, Kishida is termed a “consensus builder”; such a charge arguably draws from his long diplomatic career, and promises a skill that Tokyo could greatly use at present on the international stage. Under Joe Biden, US’ focus on rebuilding alliances has been welcomed by Japan; reaffirmation that the US-Japan security alliance extends to the Senkaku Islands, establishing a “US-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era” in April 2021 and the successes of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) framework, which saw Japan host its second ministerial under Suga and expand the dialogue into a Leadership Summit are signs of positive growth. Japan’s focus, at present, is hence to ensure positive growth of its most important security alliance; Kishida’s promises to stand against Chinese aggression, increase Japan’s defence capabilities and follow a strong line on Taiwan and Hong Kong are promising overtures laying the groundwork for closer US-Japan cooperation. Importantly, as a seasoned diplomat, Kishida brings back Abe’s foreign policy gambit of building personal camaraderie; as a former foreign minister, he built strong bonds with then secretaries like US State Secretary John Kerry (now a special envoy in the Biden Administration). Much like the Abe-Modi and Abe-Obama political ‘friendship’ narratives that greatly aided Japan’s foreign outlook, Kishida is likely to build on such maneuvering to shape the future of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific security calculus.
Via Kishida, the LDP seeks to bring a candidate who is most likely to follow the mainstream platforms and party line; economically, this is likely to see continued extension of “Abenomics”—which found in “Suganomics” a compatible ally and is now poised to merge with “Kishidanomics” in a similar fashion. Kishida is a top leader of the influential Kochikai LDP faction that follows the diplomatic philosophy of prioritizing economic recovery over rearmament. Hence, it is not a surprise that he has placed the “virtuous cycle of growth and redistribution” as the focal point of his economic policies, sticking with Abe-Suganomics to fight deflation. Such antics bode well for ensuring Japan’s continued dedication to ventures such as the India-Australia-Japan established Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) and the US-Japan-Australia led Blue Dot Network (BDN).
Concurrently, it is important to remember that some of Japan’s biggest and most massive infrastructure investment and policies—take for example Tokyo’s investments in India’s Northeast in 2015—were shaped and announced by Kishida (not taking away anything from Abe though) as Japan’s foreign minister. This proves to be promising for countries like India that have major infrastructure plans and ventures with Japan, especially as Kishida has not hesitated to make unequivocal statements in the past supporting India. Notably, Kishida also unveiled Japan’s massive USD2.32 billion infrastructure building aid to India way back in 2013; rebuilding—or rather, further bolstering—such parity between both states is highly likely under Kishida’s leadership and can prove to be a huge boost for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship “Make in India” initiative.
For now, China has given a measured response to Kishida’s victory within the LDP, and all but assured ascension to Japan’s leadership. Kishida will assume office at a time when Beijing-Tokyo ties are exceedingly tense and competitive. While Kishida has long been somewhat dovish in his stance on China, his campaign leading to his LDP victory saw a clearly hawkish turn. For instance, much to China’s chagrin, Kishida (and his LDP opponents) welcomed Taiwan’s inclusion to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Moreover, one of Kishida’s key policy aims is to bolster the Japanese coast guard’s capabilities as part of a security boost in face of Chinese aggressiveness in the East China Sea, over the Senkaku Islands dispute. Kishida envisions a coast guard that can operate seamlessly with the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. Interestingly, Kishida even called developing strike capabilities a “viable option”. In this context, Kishida is likely to follow Abe’s path and push for a debate on the revision of Article 9 to support Japan’s security aims and interests. Hence, while Beijing has said that it is “willing to work” with a new Japanese government, Kishida’s adjustment to his policy outlook to make “countering expansionist China” a key priority is likely to irk Beijing. Although Japan will likely continue to maintain a moderate foreign policy stance, Kishida’s strong rhetoric on China signals a hardline approach in times to come, reflecting the public opinion in Japan. Further, closer alignment with the US is vital for Kishida—not only to strengthen their bilateral treaty alliance but also the Indo-Pacific narrative under Quad. Yet, notably, strategic circles in China have voiced that Kishida’s hardline stance is driven only by a desire to win votes; his openness to maintaining diplomacy and exchanges with Beijing is viewed as a positive sign. To put it directly, dealing with China has tested many leaders’ political acumen in Tokyo, and Kishida will not escape from giving this test as the next Prime Minister of Japan.
Nevertheless, Kishida’s key challenge will be to live up to the expectations of the Japanese people, who have long witnessed Abe’s steady expertise in handling international politics that made Japanese foreign policy very much a populist issue. Kishida has thus far been perceived as a “low-key” politician; however, he will now need to actively display leadership skills in not just Japan, but the region at large, to successfully build a stronger security posture in the Indo-Pacific. In this context, like Abe, Kishida will continue to face immense challenges to bring a change in Japanese security thinking and amending Article 9 to allow the country to pursue a more active militarization strategy. Although defeated for now, Kono’s military-security prone policy thinking could continue to test Kishida’s approach and actions. Simultaneously, Kishida will also need to contend with the high levels of public dissatisfaction in the country and the highly visible cracks in the LDP’s various factions. All in all, the coming days will be a test for Kishida’s leadership should he assume office, and how he performs will shape Japan’s (and perhaps the region’s) future.
Dr Jagannath Panda is a Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”.