Kishida’s Opening Moves / Facing diplomatic challenges right away

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth heads for the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Sept. 4. The ship made its first port call to Japan, with an aim to check the Chinese military’s increasing activities in waters surrounding Japan.

“I want to regain my sense of diplomacy quickly. I hope to consult with you on various matters,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told his foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, after his administration’s first Cabinet meeting, held late in the evening on Oct. 4, showing enthusiasm for getting his version of diplomacy underway.

The prime minister has been away from the diplomatic stage for about four years, but in his four years and seven months as foreign minister he established connections with heads of state and foreign ministers around the world.

On Oct. 5, Kishida talked with U.S. President Joe Biden by phone and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison by video call to confirm their continued cooperation.

During their call, Biden reportedly said he wanted to strengthen relations with Japan over the next few years and expressed a desire for consistent diplomatic contact between heads of state.

Of the 20-person Cabinet, only Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi are carryovers from the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The prime minister “believes continuity is important to diplomacy and security. He didn’t even consider replacing them,” a source close to Kishida said.

As he takes office, Kishida is facing tense situations in East Asia.

Since Suga announced he would step down on Sept. 3, North Korea has shot ballistic missiles with irregular trajectories that are difficult to intercept into Japan’s exclusive economic zone and tested new cruise missiles and other weapons. China has intensified incursions by its fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

With China’s military build-up, it is expected that the U.S.-Japan alliance alone will not be enough to protect Japan in the near future.

To address this, the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe helped build the Quad partnership between Japan, the United States, Australia and India, and sought to work more closely with Britain, France and Germany.

“The diplomatic strategies advanced under Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Kishida have begun to bear fruit,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Under the Suga Cabinet, it was decided to hold regular Quad summits, while Britain, France and Germany sent warships to the Indo-Pacific to check China.

One challenge left behind by the Abe and Suga cabinets is the debate over how Japan should specifically strengthen deterrence to discourage attacks.

During the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election, Kishida called possessing the ability to destroy enemy missile bases for defensive purposes “a viable option.”

However, even if done for self-defense, it is believed the public would oppose the introduction of weapons intended to attack targets in other countries’ territories.

Seeking to prevent the LDP from charging ahead on its own, Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito, said, “Because gaining the understanding of the people is the most important thing, I would like to provide a sense of direction through an agreement between the LDP and Komeito.”

Kishida said he will emphasize “dialogue with the people.”

The prime minister will have to explain frankly how he will deal with the threats Japan is facing during the House of Representatives election and elsewhere, and work to build consensus.