The Limits of Kishida’s China Mission – The Diplomat

Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

The Japanese prime minister held his first face-to-face meeting with China’s Xi Jinping, but he has narrow limits on how far he can push the relationship.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the 2022 APEC Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, November 17, 2022.

Photo Credit: Office of the Prime Minister of JapanAdvertising

On November 17, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in Bangkok, Thailand, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. This is the first face-to-face meeting between leaders of Japan and China in almost three years. The COVID-19-related travel restrictions imposed by both countries may have contributed to the long gap between the meetings, but it’s also true that Sino-Japanese relations have been cool during this period.

While both Kishida and Xi have used virtual means of communication to speak with other world leaders, this is also the first talk between the leaders of the two countries since Xi took office in October 2021, when Kishida took office , made a quick congratulatory call.

At the meeting, the two heads of state agreed on the importance of developing stable bilateral relations. To further this goal and to keep communication going, they decided that Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa will visit China.

Other areas of the agreement were also predictable: the two sides opposed Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and agreed on the need for cooperation in the economic sphere and on climate change. However, as widely expected, they failed to reach agreement on the issues that could hamper strong bilateral ties, particularly those related to Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

diplomatic letter

Weekly NewsletterN

Catch up on the story of the week and develop stories to watch across Asia Pacific.

Get the newsletter

As early as 1969, Japan had stated in the joint statement by US President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Sato Eisaku that “maintaining peace and security in the Taiwan region is also an extremely important factor for the security of Japan”. Recent events, however, have dramatically highlighted this point: when Beijing responded to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan by conducting military drills around the islands, five Chinese ballistic missiles fell in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Do you like this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Only $5 per month.

Regarding Taiwan, Kishida told reporters that “I have reiterated the importance of peace and security across the Taiwan Strait.” But the path to mutual understanding on Taiwan is still unclear, as according to CCTV, Xi responded to Kishida’s concerns about Taiwan by saying, “China does not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, nor does it accept interference in them.” internal affairs of China affairs under any pretext.”

Analysts and journalists have pointed to the domestic challenges Kishida faces in stabilizing ties with China. Writing for Yomiuri Shimbun, Takashi Nakagawa and Seima Oki, “It appears that Kishida will endeavor to strike a balance between reaching out to Beijing and carefully considering domestic public opinion on China’s actions.”

Another Yomiuri article pointed to the conflicting desires and concerns within the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito: “In addition to calls for continued constructive dialogue heard from some members of the Liberal Democratic Party, conservative party members expressed concerns about the Hurry to improve relations with China, which is increasingly striving to strengthen its hegemony.”


These challenges would be present for any Japanese leader trying to manage the expectations of a major party on a complicated issue, but CSIS’s Christopher B. Johnstone pointed out why things are particularly tense for Kishida compared to the late former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo :

Abe’s combative views and political pedigree — he came from a branch of the Liberal Democratic Party that historically favored a strong defense and closer ties with Taiwan — shielded him from criticism at home for engaging China’s leaders, such as when conducting a state visit to Beijing in October 2018. Kishida’s roots in the LDP’s Kochikai faction – traditionally more moderate and pro-Japan’s neighbors – offer him less isolation.

Polling experiments conducted by Michaela Mattes and Jessica LP Weeks confirmed the intuition underlying Johnstone’s argument. They note that “inland hawks are actually better positioned to initiate an approach than doves.” Mattes and Weeks also explored why this might be the case, concluding that (1) “Voters have more confidence in the approach when it is being pursued by a hawk,” and (2) hawks seeking arbitration initiate, see rather as moderate. Michael Goldfien’s forthcoming quantitative and qualitative observational work reinforces the point that doves have historically been less successful in approaching democracies than hawks.

Not only does Kishida face significant challenges with China, any of his attempts to improve relations with China are likely to come under scrutiny because of his dovish reputation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as public accountability is a fundamental principle of democratic governance. However, the Japanese public should also give Kishida an opportunity to mend relations — while there may be occasional false starts and a few instances of two steps forward, one step back — without being so quick to criticize. Peace and stability are in the best interest of all peoples.