Japan election: What to expect from Fumio Kishida

Prime Minister Kishida must strike a balance between his significant economic and geopolitical ambitions to achieve the unfulfilled regional aspirations of his predecessors.

Expert comment Published 2 November 2021 Updated 21 December 2021 3 minute READ

With victory in Sunday’s general election, Fumio Kishida has solidified his role as prime minister of Japan. While he can finally emerge from the shadows cast by the criticized COVID-19 response of his predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, he is also burdened with an ambitious mandate. His challenge will be to balance domestic economic reform with a foreign policy agenda for increased geopolitical influence in the Indo-Pacific as he aims to achieve the twin goals of peace and prosperity.

A ‘new capitalism’

Kishida’s pre-election announcement of a redistributive domestic economic policy that aims to close wealth disparities, grow the middle class and focus on small business, showed a different side of a man often portrayed as a solid, mild-mannered and pragmatic presence. Despite his loyalty to former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, it represents a notable departure from the ‘Abenomics’ of the 2010s, which sought to stimulate overall growth in the context of an ageing population and rising welfare costs.

However, electioneering and policy implementation are two very different beasts. The plausibility of delivering on his economic ambitions while managing competing COVID-19 recovery and climate change priorities will become clearer in the short term, although Kishida’s relatively comfortable election win will provide some early political momentum.

The foreign policy agenda

Can we expect a similar departure in terms of foreign policy from Kishida, given his background as Japan’s longest serving postwar foreign minister? Challenges at home heighten the significance of his strategic economic and diplomatic ambitions abroad, which are based on Abe’s original vision of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, an intangible transformation of the Asian geography governed by principles of peace, stability and free trade, underpinned by the rule of law.

Japan’s relationship with India will be key for the regional ambitions of both countries.

Japan’s relationship with India will be key for the regional ambitions of both countries. Kishida proclaimed in 2015 that ties between the two countries should usher in ‘an era when the Indo-Pacific region becomes the epicenter of global prosperity’. As foreign minister under Abe, Kishida oversaw unprecedented levels of official development assistance (ODA) to India and has been open in his view of this aid as a way to catalyze increased private sector investment and financial flows between the two countries. Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been keen to emphasize their countries’ strong ties and ‘special’ relationship to Japan’s new prime minister, highlighting the continued pursuit of bilateral initiatives in growing sectors like digital and AI.

In multilateral settings, Japan is increasingly keen to play a prominent role in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which also includes India, Australia and the United States. Since it was re-established in 2017, this security framework has suffered from obscure mission statements and a lack of clear actions. But things could be changing. The first in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit in September made sustainable infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific a fundamental priority with the launch of a senior Quad infrastructure coordination group. If successfully implemented, Quad projects in targeted countries could compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and strengthen Japan’s geopolitical position in Asia while providing trade and investment benefits. 

Kishida risks strategic incoherence in attempting to realize Abe’s Indo-Pacific vision while also embarking on substantial domestic reform of a Covid-impacted economy.

Kishida is aware that a restrained approach to China is necessary. Although the Quad and Japan’s alliance with the US undoubtedly strengthen Japan’s security position in the region, China stands in the way of the idealized Indo-Pacific that Abe imagined. China will also continue to be Japan’s largest trading partner in the short term. Kishida’s response to China’s recent application for membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) was appropriately firm but not aggressive, casting doubt on China’s ability to adhere to its rules and standards. Furthermore, Kishida’s recent introduction of an economic security minister to help safeguard Japan’s economic infrastructure and protect technological advantages in key supply chains betrays a foreign policy approach clearly influenced by China.  

A hardened leader

This considered but firm diplomatic approach raises a fascinating tension between the personal and professional for Kishida. As prime minister, this passionate nuclear disarmament advocate with peaceful principles must project strength to his country’s citizens and accept that prominent alliances with nuclear states, such as the United States, will raise questions about possible Japanese rearmament and the continued existence of their pacificist constitution. He is also potentially scarred by his experience in Myanmar where he led unprecedented Japanese diplomatic engagement with Aung San Suu Kyi following her election victory in 2015, only for the peaceful transition and democratization of the country to eventually fail.

The hardening of Kishida was noticeable leading up to the election, as evidenced by his stance on pre-emptive strikes to negate potential Chinese aggression in Taiwan. Although Japan has strong strategic partnerships, his change in leadership style is perhaps understandable given Japan’s unique geography between an unstable Korean peninsula, China and Russia.

A hardened leader contd.

Kishida risks strategic incoherence in attempting to realize Abe’s Indo-Pacific vision while also embarking on substantial domestic reform of a Covid-impacted economy. However, this may well be rhetorical ambition and simply the business of winning elections. Observing what electoral promises are implemented in his first term will be fundamental in measuring his success.

Japan’s existing multilateral and bilateral partnerships provide considerable opportunity for Kishida to achieve enhanced economic and diplomatic influence in Asia, particularly where they result in major infrastructure projects that can compete with initiatives such as China’s BRI. Striking the right balance between his economic and geopolitical ambitions will be key to Kishida achieving the unfulfilled aspirations of his predecessors.