Kishida Unlikely to Improve Sino-Japanese Ties

In the future, hi-tech exchanges between China and Japan will be highly politicized, and economic exchanges may be limited to general products.

On October 4, Fumio Kishida replaced Yoshihide Suga as Japan’s prime minister. In his inauguration speech, delivered on October 8, Kishida vowed to stay ahead of the COVID-19 crisis, implement new capitalism and strengthen diplomatic and security guarantees. He said he would work with all Japanese people to carry out these policies and carve out a new era of prosperity. The question is how effective Kishida will be at leading Japan into the new era he promises.
Factional politics

While Japan lauds itself as a democratic country, a closer observation of Japanese politics reveals it has nothing to do with ruling by the people.

Fumio Kishida, leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), stands during a special Diet session in Tokyo, Japan, Oct. 4, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)

Japan’s so-called democratic system, established by the U.S. after World War II (WWII), is a big step forward compared to the political system that preceded it, but to this day it remains little more than a bourgeois democracy that opposes any real progress.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has held onto power for a long time. Within the party, heavyweights like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still dominate policy-setting agendas with the support of their own factions and allies.

The election of Kishida once again highlighted the LDP’s factional politics. Abe resigned citing health issues in August 2020, and his successor was Suga, his top aide. Suga was touted by many as a symbol of Japanese democracy as he, a farmer’s son, is a self-made politician who fought his way to the top government post. However, Suga was in fact Abe’s puppet and continued to act on his predecessor’s policies. Nevertheless, if even Abe himself could not succeed in tackling the challenges facing Japan, what could then be expected from Suga? In the end, Suga stepped down, after only one year in office.

The leader of the LDP is not decided by the votes of party members, but by the good graces of factional leaders. To be elected, Kishida has to protect the interests of Abe and other heavyweights, to gain their support. Given that he must reserve positions in his administrative team for the loyalists of other factional leaders, how can we expect him to lead Japan into a new era?

In his speech, Kishida further said he would pursue politics of “trust and empathy.” Some people believe he is attempting to highlight the differences between his policies and those of Abe and Suga, but will there be any real difference? It remains to be seen.

Photo taken on April 1, 2019 shows engineers work at Xinguan Technology, a semiconductor high-tech enterprise in Dalian, northeast China’s Liaoning Province. (Photo/Xinhua)

Security strategy

Since the 1980s, Japan has been seeking a bigger role in the global political sphere. As a country occupied by the U.S. after WWII and knowing that it will never be able to challenge the U.S. in the future, Japan considers the U.S.-Japan alliance as the strategic cornerstone of its diplomacy and security policy. In this sense, Japan now depends on the U.S. to achieve its ambitions.

Fearing China’s development, Japan has hyped up the “China threat” rhetoric and played an active part in the creation of an anti-China alliance in the so-called Indo-Pacific region, ranging from former Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, to Abe’s Strategic Diamond, to today’s the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Japan, the U.S., India, and Australia. From this perspective, although in his speech Kishida said he would continue the dialogue with China as Abe had done, we should understand that rather than efforts to improve ties and communications, Kishida’s dialogue will be battlefield speech.

Kishida has also introduced a system for the hi-tech decoupling from the Chinese economy. A notable new appointment in his administration is the minister in charge of economic security, whose main task is to review security issues in technological exchanges across hi-tech sectors. The mandate clearly targets China with a focus on the semiconductor industry.

The decoupling of the hi-tech industrial chain is also clearly on the agenda. In the future, hi-tech exchanges between China and Japan will be highly politicized, and economic exchanges may be limited to general products. On October 5, the Kishida administration announced that the exploration and mining of rare metals including rare earth will be added to the categories of industries that restrict the contribution of foreign investors under Japan’s Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act.

There is no reason to be optimistic about Sino-Japanese ties under the Kishida administration. If the new Japanese prime minister can keep from crossing the red lines in bilateral relations, it would be a blessing for both countries.


The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and an expert on international relations.