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Commentary: The consistency and novelty in Kishida’s foreign policy

By Kuni Miyake, contributing writer

 

In the policy speech he gave before parliament Tuesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida articulated his foreign policy as “Realism-based Diplomacy for a New Era.”

 

He described it as a policy of “firmly holding up the banner of ideals for the future while facing the reality,” which is “becoming increasingly severe and complex.”

 

The nation’s mainstream media, however, seems to be ambivalent about Kishida’s realism. The editorials of liberal newspapers were more obsessed with domestic and economic issues. The Asahi Shimbun criticized the prime minister for not being forthcoming on the issue of the Nuclear Weapons Convention, even though he proposed to establish an “International Council of Wise Men” for a “world without nuclear weapons.”

 

Other dailies, in contrast, were more vocal on foreign affairs. The Nikkei, for example, urged Kishida to better address other issues, citing “China’s maritime expansion and North Korea’s nuclear and missile development pose a threat to Japan. Japan needs to strengthen its ties with the United States and other friendly countries, while pursuing a multilayered diplomacy to contain the crisis.”

 

That said, as compared to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Terrestrial Globe Diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map,” Kishida’s Realism-based Diplomacy for a New Era sounds more orthodox and less flamboyant.

 

Nonetheless, Kishida’s foreign policy is both consistent and ambitious.

 

It is especially so when compared to the previous policies championed by former prime ministers. In 2012, for example, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda advanced what he called “The Asia-Pacific Century,” which was later upgraded by Abe with his vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

 

The same can be said about the Japan-U.S. Alliance. Noda said 10 years ago “the alliance is a common resource essential for the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and the world.” Kishida naturally is also pursuing a similar national security policy.

 

As Kishida maintains consistency in Japan’s foreign policy, there are potentially significant diplomatic implications that will result from his first policy speech to the Diet. The following are some of those examples that I recognize after comparing various prime ministers’ policy speeches made before the parliament over the past decade.

 

China

In 2012, Prime Minister Noda stated, “We cannot speak of the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region without China playing a constructive role in it.” He also said, “The next step for us is to enhance the content of this relationship further and deepen cooperation for creating a stable regional order.” This was the typical China policy of the time.

 

In 2015, Abe said, “We will strengthen our stable friendship from a broad perspective while deepening dialogues at various levels.” In 2021, however, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated, “While there are outstanding issues of concern between our two countries, Japan will continue to firmly maintain its position as necessary on occasions of high-level contacts and strongly urge China to take concrete actions.”

 

Last week Kishida sounded a little more critical, saying, “We will say what needs to be said to China and strongly demand responsible acts.” He added, “At the same time, we will have dialogue and cooperate on issues where we share concerns.” The difference may be subtle but it should not be underestimated.

 

Kishida also stated, probably with the Senkaku Islands or Taiwan in mind, that he would “improve island defense capabilities to enhance preparedness for the Southwest Islands, ” adding “(We will) amend the Self-Defense Forces Law to take all possible measures for the transportation of Japanese nationals in case they are in danger overseas.” This should not be overlooked either.

 

Russia

Abe said in 2015, “We will tenaciously continue negotiations with Russia towards the conclusion of a peace treaty while deepening our cooperation in a range of fields, including the economy and culture.” Suga echoed Abe in 2021, saying, “The exchanges at the summit meeting in Singapore in 2018 have been carried over to my administration, and I will advance negotiations following the agreements between our two countries.”

 

On Russia, Kishida reiterated Abe’s policy, saying, “we will develop the entire Japan-Russia relationship, while persistently pursuing negotiations based on the various agreements reached to date, including the exchanges at the summit meeting in Singapore in 2018 and continuing the exchanges between the leaders since 2018.”

 

North Korea

Noda said in 2012 that he would try “to normalize diplomatic relations in line with the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration by comprehensively resolving a range of pending issues, including nuclear and missile issues, and by settling the unfortunate past between the two countries.” Unfortunately, nothing has happened since.

 

In 2015, Abe stated, “we will continue to urge North Korea to comprehensively resolve the outstanding issues of concern, including the abductions, nuclear and missile issues.” Suga echoed Abe in 2021, saying, “My determination to meet with Chairman Kim Jong Un without any conditions has not changed. Japan seeks to normalize its relations with North Korea, through comprehensively resolving outstanding issues of concern.”

 

Kishida’s policy vis-a-vis North Korea remains the same. However, this time, to cope with a new threat environment, he said he would “formulate a new National Security Strategy,” and went on to say “(We) will realistically consider all options, including the so-called enemy base attack capability.” But he also said his administration will drastically strengthen the nation’s defense capability with a sense of speed. This is also a new element, which should not be mistaken.

 

South Korea

In 2015, Abe said, “The Republic of Korea (ROK) is our most important neighboring country. Later South Korea was downgraded and in 2021 Suga called South Korea just “an important neighboring country,” adding that “The bilateral relationship between Japan and the ROK is currently in an extremely difficult situation. In order to restore sound relations, we strongly urge the ROK, based on Japan’s principled positions, to take appropriate actions.”

 

This year, however, Kishida mentioned South Korea in only one sentence, saying, “We will strongly urge South Korea, an important neighbor, to take appropriate measures based on Japan’s consistent position.” The difference is hardly unintentional. Kishida’s foreign policy seems to be evolving every day.

 

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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