Japan Prime Minister Kishida Heads to San Francisco Aiming to Show Diplomatic Prowess with Xi, Biden Meetings amid Domestic Woes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at a Cabinet meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is hoping to steer the government out of its predicament through a steady accumulation of diplomatic successes, but the road ahead remains steep, observers said.

Kishida is attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on Thursday and Friday. On the sidelines of the APEC meeting, he plans to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“There is the possibility that a Japan-China summit will be held,” Kishida said Tuesday during a meeting with coalition partner Komeito’s leader, Natsuo Yamaguchi, at the Prime Minister’s Office. “I would like to create opportunities for dialogue.”

The summit with Xi is being arranged to take place Thursday. Should it be held, it will be the first meeting between Kishida and Xi since Nov. 17, 2022, on the sidelines of last year’s APEC summit in Bangkok.

During Kishida’s visit to the United States, he will also hold one-on-one meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. The prime minister will also attend a summit of the Biden-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).

Kishida is confident of the public acclaim earned for his diplomacy. Last year, his administration suffered similar setbacks due to a series of scandals involving Cabinet ministers, but he managed to shore up his Cabinet’s approval rating this year by visiting Ukraine and hosting the G7 summit in Hiroshima.

Aides to the prime minister hope that this latest official overseas trip will serve as a catalyst for a similar transformation.

Difference in tone

It remains to be seen, however, whether the trip will go Kishida’s way.

During the planned dialogue with Xi, Kishida will demand that China immediately lift its ban on imports of Japanese seafood, the biggest issue between the two countries related to the discharge of treated water into the ocean from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

It is highly unlikely that China will comply, the observers said.

There has also been the issue of a buoy placed by China in waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Senkaku Islands. It has yet to be removed. Then there is the case of a Japanese national arrested by China under murky circumstances.

“It will be difficult to get a positive response from President Xi,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official, echoing a view widely held by observers.

There are also grounds for concern in Tokyo’s relations with Washington.

Biden is expected to hold a U.S.-China summit on Wednesday to discuss building healthy economic ties and other issues with Xi. In response to the escalating tensions in the Middle East, there are moves in Washington to seek a reduction in tensions with Beijing.

Voices within the Japanese government feel Japan could be left behind with increasing U.S.-China rapprochement.

When it comes to the Middle East, there is a difference in tone in the U.S. and Japanese stances. The United States clearly backs Israel while Japan emphasizes balanced diplomacy between the Israeli and the Palestinian sides.

To what extent Kishida and Biden will be able to present a united front on the situation at their summit remains unclear.