Fumio Kishida’s victory owes a lot to the conservative wing of the LDP and many of his foreign policy actions will operate within the parameters former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set during his tenure.
Japanese Prime Minister designate Fumio Kishida. PA
The votes are over and the wait is over: Fumio Kishida will be appointed Prime Minister of Japan. His victory, just a year after an ignominious defeat at the hands of incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, comes at a time of churn and crisis. Kishida will have her arms full from day 1: the COVID-19[female[feminine the pandemic is still raging, Japan’s economic recovery and an ambitious China are knocking on Japan’s door.
How did we get here?
A little over a year ago, former Foreign and Defense Minister Kishida found himself on the other side of the political equation. As Shinzo Abe stepped down, Kishida ran to replace him and handily lost to Abe’s right-hand man, Yoshihide Suga, who went on to take the top post. Many felt that 62-year-old Kishida, who represents Hiroshima in the House of Representatives, had her chance and ruined it. Luckily for Kishida, Suga didn’t turn out to be as adept at being prime minister as he had been at being Shinzo Abe’s political fixer. His administration was widely seen as having mismanaged Japan’s response to COVID-19[female[feminine delaying the rollout of vaccines and offering half-baked travel plans as cases raged. Suga’s national approval rating has plummeted and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan has grown increasingly nervous about running in an impending general election with the struggling prime minister as leader. Sensing his luck, Fumio Kishida declared his candidacy for the leadership of the PLD and helped speed up the process of rejecting Suga.
However, to get the best job, Kishida still had to beat a slew of competitive candidates. Taro Kono, son of the powerful former Diet Chairman Yohei Kono, is a former Foreign and Defense Minister and one of the most popular politicians in Japan. His reputation as a maverick reformer bolstered his support among grassroots PLD members who wanted a bold approach to Japan’s broad economic, political and political issues. However, his penchant for defying the party line on key issues like nuclear energy (Kono opposed it), hurt his chances among high-ranking elected officials. Then there was Sanae Takaichi, the darling of the Japanese right. More than any other candidate, Takaichi has been the star of this leadership election and has been praised for her articulation and confidence in candidate debates. Takaichi also received support from former Prime Minister Shino Abe who continues to control the conservative faction of the PLD.
Nevertheless, Kishida managed to beat his competition. His status as a harmless “safe pair of hands” and his long experience in government have proven to be attractive to senior party members. During this leadership campaign, Kishida has cast her dove-like image on China by expressing “deep concern” over the actions of the East Asian power in the South China Sea. He has also avoided endorsing controversial social positions like same-sex marriage. In doing so, Kishida has indicated that he is ready to compromise on key issues to suit Japanese conservatives. Abe and his tribe took note and put their weight behind Kishida who easily beat Taro Kono in the second round of the elections.
Implications for India and the World
For India and Japan’s other partners around the world, stability will be key. South Block’s policymakers will no doubt sleep a little easier knowing that Shinzo Abe has made a decisive return to politics, albeit in a less important role. The longtime prime minister has been one of the main proponents of a closer relationship between India and Japan that gained momentum after 2014. Abe was a notable Chinese hawk before it became fashionable and actively pushed world leaders to implement initiatives like the Quad.
Kishida’s victory owes a lot to the conservative wing of the LDP, and many of his foreign policy actions will operate within the parameters Abe set during his tenure. Kishida not only criticized China’s economic and political aggression during his tenure, but also proclaimed his willingness to work with “those who share the same values, such as the United States, Europe, India and the United States. ‘Australia’. Significantly, Kishida also indicated his support for Japan’s acquisition of an offensive missile strike capability. By acquiring an openly offensive tool of war, Japan will make it clear to its allies and competitors that its more muscular military posture is here to stay.
Kishida also said establishing economic security will be a key priority for his administration. This drive to reduce reliance on China and diversify key supply chains, combined with Quad’s plan to build supply chain resilience in semiconductors, represents a key opportunity for India. As tensions with China mounted and the COVID-19[female[feminine pandemic raged, Japan offered compensation to a series of Japanese companies to leave China and settle in more user-friendly climates in Southeast Asia and India. With creative diplomacy and internal economic improvements, New Delhi can convince Tokyo to take bilateral economic relations to the next level. Internationally, New Delhi will have to rely on Japan to hold its own on key economic standards in trade deals like RCEP and CPTPP as India and the United States are not involved. Kishida is already feeling the heat in her new role given China’s recent candidacy to join the CPTPP.
However, India will continue to view some key issues with concern. On the one hand, Tokyo’s difficult relationship with South Korea, another valued Indian partner, is expected to remain strained for the foreseeable future. The relationship turned sour in 2018 over the controversial issue of World War II reparations and has since evolved into a high-level tech war and diplomatic freeze. While a presidential election is slated for South Korea in March and could bring further diplomatic overtures, Kishida’s victory signifies a victory for Korean conservatives skeptical of Japan who will not be keen to cede ground. With key military intelligence pacts, economic security challenges, and a powerful China in the neighborhood, New Delhi can only advise the obvious.
Finally, New Delhi will also closely follow the upcoming Japanese general elections. While the ruling PLD faces no serious challenger, the public has clearly expressed its dissatisfaction with the previous Suga administration. The PLD is betting that a new prime minister on his honeymoon will reverse the trend. If Kishida were to suffer a setback at the ballot box, his position would undoubtedly suffer. The last thing New Delhi wants is a chain of politically weak prime ministers who will be unable to keep up with the rhetoric on foreign policy and economic commitments.
As Kishida achieves his lifelong ambition and enters Kantei, he will have his hands full.
The author is Associate Researcher, Strategic Studies Program, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.