From Abe to Kishida: Japan’s Changing Line on China


Japan’s vital role in the modern geopolitical landscape of Asia –if not the world –can no longer be denied. Under Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister from 2012-2020, Tokyo charted its re-emergence as a key global and regional power, laying the groundwork for some of the most important multilateral ventures of present-day Asia and the Indo-Pacific. From historic speeches like ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ to ideological creations like the ‘Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond’ —laying the groundwork for present day Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) —Japan began its quest for a ‘great power’ identity by building a strong regional presence. Debate concerning moving away from its pacifist constitution took center-stage under Abe; concurrently, ties with the US, India and China received focus in realms ranging from security to connectivity to economics. Japan’s infrastructure diplomacy was built with active implementation of ventures like the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) while trilaterals such as US-Japan-Australia established ‘quality’ infrastructure driven ventures like the Blue Dot Network (BDN). Most importantly, each of these ventures ultimately tied together with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy.

Amongst such developments, Japan-China ties continued to dominate Japan’s security concerns against its economic outlook. But, with China’s belligerence as a revolutionary revisionist power showing no signs of dissipating, Tokyo has begun to chart a new line on Beijing. What shape is Japan’s China policy poised to take in the near future, especially amidst political turmoil domestically?

Moving away from ‘seikei-bunri’?

Abe’s sudden resignation in September 2020 brought with it political turmoil for Japan, adding to the economic challenges the country was facing due to COVID-19. Hailed as a ‘continuity’ leader, his successor Yoshihide Suga had big shoes to fill while the international community watched with consternation. However, Suga showed consistency in Japan’s foreign policy –a subtle shift from ‘Abenomics’ to ‘Suganomics’ in domestic economic outlook saw successes, leading to a 12.7 per cent expansion in the economy by February 2021 aiding its recovery from recession. On Japan’s international policy front, Suga built on Abe-era initiatives and outlooks by focusing on growing bilateral and multilateral partnerships with Japan’s partners as the threat from China grew. Even with his recent decision to step-down amidst falling ratings over handling of the pandemic, Suga’s leadership on the international front has proven to be valuable for Tokyo.

Now, with seasoned diplomat Fumio Kishida –who has also served as Tokyo’s longest foreign minister among other major charges – becoming Japan’s next leader, his hawkish stand on China clearly highlights that while being a ‘consensus builder’, China’s hopes for a reset in ties with Japan are unlikely to see fruition. Maintaining and building on the US-Japan security alliance (which saw progress under the Biden-Suga bilateral) will remain the key priority for Kishida on the international front, balanced against recognition of China as a security threat. This has been evidenced by Kishida not wasting time in shedding his ‘dove’ image for a more hardline approach towards Beijing, formulating this strategy during his campaign trail itself. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in selecting Kishida –who went up against other party stalwarts like Taro Kono –has picked a leader who they believe is the safest option to ensure that a return to ‘revolving door’  politicians does not take place in the country; such an overture is essential to ensuring stability in Japan’s foreign policy at a time when its role in the region has grown to be tremendous.

In this respect, a gradual shift away from Japan’s age-old ‘seikei bunri’ –the policy of separation of politics and economics –has been visible in tandem with China’s revisionist antics, especially over the past couple of years. Such an overture is not new in Japan; in the past as well, Tokyo has strayed from ‘seikei bunri’ to cater to immediate national security and national interest needs. However, in the post-pandemic era amidst a new emerging international order, this shift appeared to be more permanent, under both Abe and ‘continued’ —as well as built on— by Suga. The 2021 Defence White Paper by Japan termed China “a matter of grave concern” with a focus on the East China Sea (ECS), China’s new Coast Guard Law (CGL) and ‘gray zone’ maritime strategy. On the economic front, Japan was one of the first countries to move production out of China at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) with partners India and Australia, seeking to build sustainable alternatives to China-centric supply chains in the post-pandemic order while showing a long-term commitment to limiting its own trade dependency on China.

Kishida’s factional diplomatic ideology of prioritizing economic stability over security has also found a strong base to build on; via ‘Kishidanomics’, he plans to focus on “growth and redistribution”, not diverting but rather updating ‘Suganomics’ and ‘Abenomics’. Hence, his continued dedication to building frameworks like SCRI can be counted upon. Japan’s economic multilateralism ambitions have seen Kishida welcome Taiwan’s application to join the CP-TPP (while Suga had already welcomed the UK’s application for the same in February), create a new cabinet focused on economic security and ensure he maintains a nuanced China outlook by confronting China, therein putting security over economics.

Tokyo’s evolving multilateralism

Japan’s growing bilateral and multilateral partnerships also provide potent examples of a more concrete shift away from ‘seike bunri’. The Japan-US alliance saw significant improvement in the Biden-Suga era post an unstable US leadership under Trump, arguably rebuilding itself in confidence as Tokyo’s most important security linkage. This new reset to the US-Japan alliance, can be broadly identified in two key instances; first being Biden’s call to Suga at the onset of his presidency wherein he emphasized that the alliance extends into the ECS and the second being the Biden-Suga meet in Washington establishing a “US-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era”. Importantly, in a uncharacteristic move for Tokyo, the joint statement with US levied harsh criticisms of China’s assertive actions in the maritime domain, human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and mentioned the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” –for the first time in over three decades. Such a mention highlights a move away from ‘seikei bunri’ in explicit terms especially as for Beijing viewed the same a threat to ‘One China’ in a major diplomatic affront.

In this context, Japan’s focus on Taiwan –which also happens to be a claimant power in the Senkaku/Diaoyu/ Diablo dispute in ECS –has seen growth over the past year while Kishida has stated that maintaining maritime security remains a vital focus area. China’s implementation of its new CGL and the security threats it poses are an added factor behind this focus; as China’s stand on the Taiwan Question becomes more aggressive —it has sent a record high number of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) this week— it is important for Tokyo’s regional security calculus that Taipei’s security holds –a fear shared by its ally US. Mention of Taiwan in the US-Japan statement showcased this very focus. Kishida, in a continuation of Suga and Abe’s outlooks, has appointed a special adviser to the Prime Minister who focuses on human rights, linking overtly to moves focused on ensuring a deeper connect with the US on topics such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

Japan’s bilateral ties with powers beyond the US like India, Australia, France and UK have also seen growth. Kishida will now have to ensure that such momentum develops further. His advent to power could prove to be very timely; being a seasoned diplomat, he brings back to the table the Abe-era of foreign policy rooted in personal diplomacy which Suga –a career politician –could not provide Tokyo. With India –a natural and ‘strategic global’ partner for Japan –Tokyo’s ties saw growth post signing of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). Promises to combine efforts in third country cooperation bode potential for a reinvigoration of Japan and India Africa approach, especially as China’s footprint in the continent continues to grow. Concurrently, Japan-Australia signed in principle a long-pending reciprocal access agreement (RAA) heightening their defence cooperation. From Europe, Japan has welcomed both the UK and France’s strategic pivot and focus towards the Indo-Pacific, building on deeper ties with both while Tokyo’s commitment to the Quad has held steadfast.

Overall, Kishida is poised to follow in Suga (and Abe’s) footsteps –he has reiterated commitment to ensuring success of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ policy and highlighted China as a threat of “deep concern”. Kishida has already gotten Biden to re-commit yet again that the US-Japan alliance extends into the East China Sea. He seeks to re-examine laws regarding interoperability of the Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) and the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) –latter being all the more crucial in light of China’s own CGL–ensuring that progress concerning revision of the country’s pacifist constitution moves ahead. While China ‘hopes’ that Kishida will not take the Sino-Japanese relations towards hostility, Beijing will carefully monitor his diplomacy for the near future. Nonetheless, China does note that a return to pre-pandemic Japan-China ties is unlikely, especially as militarist, economic and technological threats from Beijing take focus in public debate in Japan.  The very fact that Kishida has retained Defence Minister Nobou Kishi –a strong advocate for Taiwan and China hawk – and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi from the Suga cabinet into his own highlights this very continuity. Kishida’s focus on Japan’s domestic woes –from the pandemic to the economy –must not deter him from pursuing an actively strong foreign policy by engaging deeply with fellow Indo-Pacific partner states to cement Tokyo’s contributions to the regional power dynamics and building its evolving China policy along stronger lines. While his focus on economic growth and protection remains, moving away from ‘seikei bunri’ must continue under his leadership in a way that no longer puts security and economics at par, but rather looks at the former as primary while diversifying approaches for the latter.

Eerishika Pankaj
Eerishika Pankaj
Eerishika Pankaj is Head of Research at and the Operations Director for Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA), a New Delhi based think-tank. She is also an Editorial and Research Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia. She has previously worked with think tanks based both in New Delhi and Bengaluru. Ms. Pankaj is a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and is also a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section. She has published internationally and nationally on Chinese domestic politics, Asian security, the Indo-Pacific and Indian foreign policy with her pieces appearing in publications like Pacific Forum, ISDP (Sweden), The Geopolitical Monitor, Lowy Institute's 'The Interpretor', Journal of Indian Ocean Studies (JIOS) and more. She has also co-authored a chapter in a Routledge publication focused on Xi Jinping's foreign policy overtures vis-a-vis the United States. Ms. Pankaj can be reached @eerishika on Twitter.


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