Author: Madoka Fukuda, Hosei University

Since Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took office in September 2021, Japan’s policies toward China and Taiwan have been attracting attention from other countries in the region. Will the Kishida administration change Japan’s policy toward China and Taiwan from those of his predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga?

The current discussion about Kishida’s stance towards China focuses on several factors. These include Kishida’s position as the leader of the traditionally progressive Kochikai faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the growing influence of Komeito within the ruling coalition and Kishida’s picks for his cabinet appointments.

But it is not these personal and partisan factors that have determined Japan’s China policy in recent years. Instead, it has been international and domestic factors. As long as these factors remain unchanged, Japan’s new administration is unlikely to make any major changes in its policy toward China and Taiwan. Japan has no choice but to emphasise deterrence against Chinese threats while continuing dialogue with China.

The most important security factor is the competitive relationship between the United States and China. While the United States and China are mutually demonstrating an attitude of dialogue, there is no prospect of resolving their fundamentally competitive relationship. Japan’s position between the United States and China cannot be neutral and it places greater importance on its alliance with the United States.

In a situation where the Biden administration aspires to confront China with its allies, Japan’s options are limited. Japan will probably choose to align with the United States and other like-minded countries to enhance its deterrence against China. In this context, Japan will continue to stress the importance of ‘peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’ and may further promote cooperation with Taiwan for this purpose.

Another important factor is economic linkages and Japan’s high economic dependence on China. According to Japan External Trade Organisation, even during the COVID-19 pandemic the decline in Japan’s trade volume with China was relatively small. The share of trade with China in Japan’s total trade volume in 2020 marked the largest ever recorded. The COVID-19 outbreak has also made many Japanese tourism companies acutely aware of the large inbound demand from Chinese tourists.

In recent years, Japan has made economic security a priority. As seen in Japan’s attraction of the new plant of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, there are areas where Japan’s relations with Taiwan and Taiwanese companies are becoming increasingly important. The past incompatibility of ‘pro-China’ and ‘pro-Taiwan’ factions across business and political circles is a thing of the past. Despite many Japanese people’s deteriorating perception of China due to issues such as the Senkaku Islands and human rights violations, they also realise the importance of maintaining a relationship with China.

The Kishida administration’s policy stance is best understood as a realistic response to Japan’s situation, rather than the appeasement of China. While continuing to engage in dialogue with China, Kishida has reiterated the Japan–US alliance as the cornerstone of Japan’s security policy and shown his commitment to economic security and human rights diplomacy.

The new Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi was the chair of the Japan–China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union. In an interview, he emphasised that he was not ‘pro-China’ but ‘knowledgeable about Chinese affairs’ and he resigned from the chair position immediately after his nomination for foreign minister. In a recent parliamentary response, he emphasised the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, noting that government officials’ statements regarding the Taiwan Strait contingency could not be considered an intervention in China’s domestic affairs.

Former defence minister Gen Nakatani, who was nominated as the prime minister’s special advisor on human rights issues, co-chairs a non-partisan parliamentarian group on China and human rights issues. Similarly, Takayuki Kobayashi, who was nominated as Economic Security Minister, previously served as the secretary general at the LDP’s strategic headquarters for developing its economic security strategy.

It remains to be seen how Kishida’s realistic policy stance will affect relations with China and Taiwan. Japan’s focus on military and economic security could cause friction with China. The touchstone for this should be the revision of the National Security Strategy, which the new administration is already discussing.

In the medium to long term, there is also the question of how Japan will respond to China and Taiwan’s applications for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). In response to China’s application, Kishida emphasised the high standards for participation in the agreement. But as China strengthens its appeal for accession, Japan may struggle to treat China and Taiwan equally as different economic entities.

Although many observers have labelled Japan’s policy preferences toward China as either pro-China or pro-Taiwan, the Kishida administration’s diplomatic security policy cannot be fully analysed by such conventional categorisation. Given Japan’s domestic and diplomatic challenges, the Kishida administration will have to choose a hybrid policy that skilfully mixes deterrence and dialogue.

Madoka Fukuda is Professor of International Politics and China Studies at the Department of Global Politics, Faculty of Law, Hosei University.

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