Japan’s Layered Balancing Act Under Kishida – Analysis – Eurasia Review – Community News
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Japan’s Layered Balancing Act Under Kishida – Analysis – Eurasia Review

by dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra*

On December 24, 2021, after more than a month of delay, Japan’s chief of staff, Hirokazu Matsuno, finally announced his country’s decision not to send a government delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022. This follows a US-led move to the Olympics to protest human rights violations in China. Although there will be no official government delegation, three Japanese heavyweights with ties to the Olympics will travel to Beijing. Furthermore, Tokyo has refrained from using the term “diplomatic boycott.” Matsuno said Japan “has no special term” for its decision. It is also important to note that the announcement was made by the Matsuno and not Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. It is clear that Japan has tried to take a balanced approach, which can be seen in at least three interconnected layers.

First, there is a domestic balancing act by Fumio Kishida between hardliners and moderates within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Kishida herself comes from the LDP faction that is considered lenient towards China. He appointed Yoshimasa Hayashi, who was the head of the Japan-China Friendship League, as the new foreign minister. He briefly held the former portfolio even after taking charge of Kishida’s new cabinet. Hayashi has also made certain formal statements describing China as “very important” to Japan. For the sake of balance, Kishida has appointed General Nakatani, who has been raising the human rights issue in China for many years, as his special adviser on human rights. Kishida has met with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who appears to be pushing for a more aggressive stance on China. At the same time, Kishida has listened to the views of his own faction within the party, which is less anti-China. He is thus trying to strike a balance between demands for involvement and dispute with China within the LDP.

Second, Kishida has sought a balanced approach to China to avoid one-dimensional engagement or combative policies. Japan has raised the issue of Taiwan and asked for a contingency plan to be ready – this stance on Taiwan has been expressed more often and more openly in 2021. Most recently, on Dec. 24, the LDP and the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan (DPP) held talks online in which they discussed lifting the ban on Taiwan’s imports of food from five Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima. On December 17, Japan also announced that its next defense budget would be increased to $47.2 billion. While Japan’s defense budget has steadily increased over the past decade, exceeding one percent of the country’s GDP is historic, and the message it sends is clear. To balance these decisions, Japan is said to have diluted its Indo-Pacific strategy by replacing the word “strategy” with “vision”. While the battle with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has moved up a few notches, Tokyo looks set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties with Beijing in 2022.

Third, Japan is also trying to find a balance for itself in the power game between the US and China. Admittedly, it is a US ally and its relations with China are considered US scripts. Gradually, however, Tokyo seems to be working towards a more nuanced and autonomous position in the region. Some in Japan believe that its economic and security interests should be pursued separately: continue to improve economic cooperation with China while strengthening security dynamics and trust with the US. Tokyo’s balancing act is focused on pursuing its economic and security needs; the result of increasing confidence about its role and place in regional comparisons; and a consequence of the search for a ‘normal state’.

While Tokyo’s equilibrium impulses are not entirely new, they have become more pronounced in recent years. The new leadership under Kishida seems to be making an even more conscious effort in this regard. There are fears in trying to please contrarian constituencies, anyone can be dissatisfied. However, Japan has opted for a mixed approach that apparently serves both its national and regional interests. An either/or policy framework has not proved very helpful, and Tokyo’s mosaic-like approach is to be appreciated.

*dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is an associate professor at the Center for East Asian Studies, JNU, and Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.