Japan Political Pulse

Prime Minister Kishida Welcomes President Biden’s Tokyo Visit

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto, Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden met virtually on January 21, 2022. (Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)

Dr. Gerald Curtis, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University, gave friendly advice to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last November, when Mr. Kishida tried his best to have a customary photo op with President Biden at the White House following his assumption of the Prime Minister’s office. Dr. Curtis advised that Prime Minister Kishida should aim for a “substantive, frank, and well-planned U.S.-Japan summit” focusing on major diplomatic, security, and economic issues between the two countries, instead of a superficial, mechanical, hurriedly-planned photo op mainly to show the Japanese public that the newly minted Prime Minister is well-regarded by the U.S. President.[1]

Of course, real symbolism is important in U.S.-Japan relations, particularly, in terms of personal rapport between the leaders of these two countries. But the Japanese media seems to place too much emphasis on perfunctory symbolism, such as whether a Prime Minister is welcomed at the White House soon after he or she assumes the office, whether these two leaders in the U.S. and Japan are on a first name basis, or whether the U.S. President visits Japan first when he makes a trip to Asia.

Despite his fervent desire to meet with President Biden at the White House in person, Prime Minister Kishida did not receive an invitation to the White House like his immediate predecessors. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt a lot of pressure from the Prime Minister’s office, as it could not “deliver” a bilateral White House meeting with President Biden, which Prime Minister Kishida wanted immensely. However, Prime Minister Kishida will soon have a better opportunity than a symbolic photo op of a carefully choreographed bilateral summit at the White House.

On April 27, the White House announced President Biden “will visit the Republic of Korea and Japan from May 20 to 24 to further deepen ties between our governments, economies, and people.”[2] It may not be symbolically pleasing in some quarters of Japan that President Biden visits the Republic of Korea before Japan. Yoshihisa Komori, a veteran conservative Washington watcher, points out “while visiting the Republic of Korea before Japan does not necessarily mean Japan is not taken seriously, it is also symbolically not meaningless that U.S. presidents have mostly chosen Japan as the first destination on their East Asia trips for a long time.”[3] However, in reality, the focus of President Biden’s trip is Japan. While President Biden is scheduled to visit the Republic of Korea first on May 20, he will spend the majority of his time in Japan from May 21 to 24.

In fact, the upcoming trip by President Biden presents Prime Minister Kishida a fantastic opportunity to score lots of political points domestically and internationally both in symbolism and substance. In terms of domestic political context, Prime Minister Kishida has an opportunity to demonstrate to Japanese citizens that he has a good grip on the most important bilateral relationship with the United States. This is certainly true for any Japanese Prime Minister, but it is particularly important for Prime Minister Kishida.

It is crucial for Prime Minister Kishida because Japanese citizens have become increasingly concerned about the security environment surrounding Japan. China, which is the biggest concern, has become ever more assertive about their territorial ambition by flexing their military might in waters near Japan. North Korea has resumed its adventurous missile launches with total disregard for international norms. Russia, which is now a junior partner of China, acts directly bellicose towards Japan. Under such circumstances, it is only natural that Japanese citizens would like Prime Minister Kishida to manage well Japan’s relationship with the U.S.

However, while Prime Minister Kishida’s approval rates are mostly remarkably high in the major polls, such as 64% in the latest Nikkei polls, he has not been perceived as a strong leader in national security.[4] Prime Minister Kishida is well-versed in international affairs and knows the importance of defending Japan, as he was the longest serving Foreign Minister from 2012 to 2017. However, he has not clearly let Japanese citizens know his views and policies regarding critically prominent issues on Japan’s security and foreign affairs.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was the longest serving Prime Minister from 2012 to 2020, established himself as a formidable national security leader in the minds of Japanese citizens. As head of the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party, former Prime Minister Abe continues to express “hawkish views” on the national security of Japan. Prime Minister Kishida generally is regarded to have “dovish views” on the national security of Japan, despite the fact that he has taken more aggressive security views since he became Prime Minister.

Obviously, managing complicated security and foreign relations issues of a nation requires measured and realistic views, rather than a simple dichotomy of “hawkish views” and “dovish views.” However, Prime Minister Kishida needs to present his security views clearly to Japanese citizens and President Biden’s trip to Japan provides him the best possible chance to do so, so far, in his young administration. The timing of President Biden’s trip is such that if the Japanese public see Prime Minister Kishida manage its relationship with the U.S., and the U.S. in turn helps Japan navigate increasingly dangerous nearby waters, it will certainly influence positively the critically important Upper House election in July.

In terms of international context, Prime Minister Kishida has an opportunity to establish himself as an influential global leader by letting the world know of his trusted relationship with President Biden and advantageous hosting of the Quad meeting of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. Needless to say, China, North Korea, Russia, the ASEAN member nations, and European countries are carefully monitoring President Biden’s May visit, as well as a forthcoming Quad leaders meeting in Japan.

If Prime Minister Kishida establishes rapport with President Biden by having a frank and meaningful discussion on critically important issues of national security, foreign affairs, economy, trade, and investment, it will certainly make him feel more confident and increase his stature at the Group of Seven (G7) summit scheduled to be held from June 26 to 28 at Schloss Elmau in Germany’s Bavarian Alps. In fact, former Prime Minister Abe maximized his good chemistry with former U.S. President Donald Trump to boost his international stature. Prime Minister Kishida might borrow former Prime Minister Abe’s playbook by creating a close personal relationship with President Biden.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Kishida may be able to come out of the shadow of former Prime Minister Abe by firmly aligning Japan with the U.S. led economic sanctions against Russia. While in office, former Prime Minister Abe established a close relationship with President Putin by holding 27 bilateral meetings together and calling each other by their first names. Even though Prime Minister Kishida shows deference to former Prime Minister Abe, the relationship between them is said to be strained, as Prime Minister Abe did not support Mr. Kishida at the party presidency election last September. While having a good relationship with President Biden seems like an extension of former Prime Minister Abe’s foreign policy, totally reversing course with Russia, in partnership with the U.S., seems like a complete departure from former Prime Minister Abe’s script.

Prime Minister Kishida has just left Japan to take advantage of “Golden Week,” the longest Japanese holiday period from April 29 to May 5. On this trip abroad, he is scheduled to visit Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Italy, and the U.K. in eight days. He will have, essentially, a non-stop schedule until the Upper House election in order to win a three-year term as Prime Minister.

 

[1] Dr. Gerald Curtis, “Mr. Kishida Goes to Washington: The Right Way and the Wrong Way,” Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, November 10, 2021, https://spfusa.org/category/japan-political-pulse/page/2/.

[2] “Statement by Press Secretary Jen Psaki on the President’s Travel to the Republic of Korea and Japan,” White House, April 27, 2022,

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/27/statement-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-on-the-presidents-travel-to-the-republic-of-korea-and-japan/.

[3] 古森 義久 (Yoshihisa Komori), “バイデン大統領東アジア歴訪に「異変」、最初に訪れるのは日本ではなく韓国か (President Biden’s visit to East Asia is “abnormal,” is South Korea the first visit?),” JBpress, April 27, 2022, https://jbpress.ismedia.jp/articles/-/69905.

[4] Nikkei polls, https://vdata.nikkei.com/newsgraphics/cabinet-approval-rating/.


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