- Political Pulse
Kishida Reverts to Dovish Ways amid an Unsettled Political Landscape
10:38 JST, December 16, 2023
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was known as a dovish politician elected from the peace-oriented city of Hiroshima, who had an unfavorable view of hawkish security policies. However, after taking office as prime minister in 2021 he decided to double Japan’s defense budget from 1% of GDP to 2% in five years. He also decided that Japan should possess counterstrike capabilities.
Has he abandoned his dovish stance as prime minister? My answer to this question is no.
The main reason Kishida unexpectedly took bold steps on security policy at the dawn of his administration was to secure political support from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who then led a faction composed of about 100 Diet members. Until recently, Kishida was the leader of his own faction, which is only the fourth largest in the Liberal Democratic Party, with 46 members. He has allied with the 56-member Aso faction led by LDP Vice President Taro Aso and the 53-member Motegi faction led by LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi. The three factions together add up to about 150 members, but this number falls short of the 190 needed to gain a majority of the LDP. For Kishida, the Abe faction is vital for keeping his administration stable. That’s why Kishida cared a lot about showing his effort to fulfill Abe’s unachieved hawkish security policies.
Before Abe stepped down as prime minister in September 2020, he issued a statement which urged his successor to consider possessing counterstrike capabilities. In the LDP presidential election that month, Kishida implied that he had a negative stance against the statement. He said, “While it is not meaningless to discuss, a lot of challenges must still be solved to possess counterstrike capabilities.” Kishida was then defeated by Yoshihide Suga, who had served Abe for many years as chief cabinet secretary and was supported by Abe.
The next spring, on March 26, 2021, Kishida tweeted, “It is necessary to possess capabilities that can directly strike and attenuate an enemy’s missile launch capabilities.” Many in the LDP believed this sudden change was aimed at attracting Abe and his faction by sending a message that he would fulfill Abe’s wishes if he were to become prime minister. Finally, in the LDP presidential election that autumn, Kishida got Abe’s support in the final vote and won.
Two years have now passed since Kishida took office, and he seems to be regressing to his original dovish stance. Frustration has grown these days among some members of an LDP-Komeito working team on exports of defense equipment, as Kishida hasn’t been willing to show leadership on making major decisions, especially on exporting equipment developed jointly with other countries to third countries. The working team originally planned to issue a final report on relaxing the rules on exporting equipment, including jointly developed weapons. That should have opened the way to selling the next generation of fighter jets to be jointly developed by Japan, Italy and the United Kingdom, but that decision was put off in the report.
There are three reasons why the decision has been postponed. One is that Abe’s death in July 2022 has changed the political landscape. Since the Kishida Cabinet started, Abe had supported Kishida and had also been a person of influence — especially on security policy. Not only had Abe advocated for increasing the defense budget and possessing counterstrike capabilities, but he also put a lot of pressure on Kishida to fulfill them. Now this pressure is gone, so Kishida doesn’t have to worry about Abe’s anger when he avoids making difficult political decisions on hawkish security policies.
The second reason is that Kishida’s approval rate has dropped rapidly in recent months and a political money scandal that particularly involves the Abe faction has rocked the Cabinet. Kishida seems to think he doesn’t have enough political capital to push any controversial security policies ahead.
The third factor is the death of Daisaku Ikeda, who was founder of Komeito, the LDP’s ruling coalition partner, and who was also honorary president of lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai. After his passing in mid-November, the Komeito leadership stiffened their pacifist attitude. Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi asked the working team to exercise cautious consideration on exporting the next generation of fighter jets to third countries, saying, “Prime Minister Kishida’s thinking on when and what should be relaxed hasn’t been expressed yet.” In fact, Kishida did not demand that Komeito accept lifting the ban. He had told a member of the working team, “If the ruling parties can find any points of agreement, I would like you to build up the conclusions one by one.” Komeito, as a party of peace, is always cautious about new security policies, finally giving approval only when the prime minister at the time strongly urges them to accept it. Yamaguchi judged this to not yet be the case. In short, Yamaguchi seems to want to avoid a hard decision as the party is unsettled in Ikeda’s absence.
Kishida has also been reluctant to accelerate legislation introducing active cyber defense. The National Security Strategy issued in 2022 declared that “Japan will introduce active cyber defense” and that “the response capabilities in the field of cybersecurity should be strengthened equal to or surpassing the level of leading Western countries.” So, experts had expected legislation for active cyber defense to be submitted to an ordinary Diet session in the first half of next year, but the government will delay the submission.
These omissions could undermine Japan’s national interests as well as the interests of the U.S.-Japan alliance. If Kishida won’t address these agendas, he may lose the good reputation he currently enjoys in the eyes of U.S. President Joe Biden, who has invited Kishida to the United States as a state guest early next year.
Political Pulse appears every Saturday.
Satoshi Ogawa is the editor of the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.
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