KISHIDA SHOULD VALUE NATIONAL INTERESTS OVER DIPLOMATIC FAVE-SAVING
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is slated to hold talks with US President Joe Biden in Hiroshima on May 18 ahead of chairing the Group of Seven (G7) Summit May 19-21. The results of Kishida’s diplomatic achievements of the past 18 months will be put to the test.
Since coming to power in October 2021, Kishida has vowed to position his diplomatic and security policies as an extension of those pursued by prime ministers Shigeru Yoshida, Nobusuke Kishi, and Shinzo Abe. He has pledged to closely follow the Abe line, which advocated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) framework as well as consummated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2018.
However, a close examination of Kishida’s security and diplomatic strategies reveals causes for fundamental concern. Masanori Kondo, a senior associate professor at International Christian College, Tokyo, sounded the alarm last Friday in his address at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately financed think tank that I head:
“Take the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Summit hosted by India March 1-2 in New Delhi, for instance. Viewing the conference as a great opportunity to promote its Global South leadership, India had planned more than 200 events in over 50 countries. Despite its eagerness to demonstrate its Global South leadership, however, India failed to issue a joint communique to mark the end of the ministerial meeting due to strong objections from China and Russia—a stark contrast to last year’s G20 Summit in Bali, in which Indonesia as the chair country somehow managed to issue the “G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Masayoshi Hayashi did not attend the meeting in New Delhi and was heavily criticized at home and abroad. The Indian government announced Hayashi was compelled to skip the meeting “due to important Japanese parliamentary matters,” but it was quickly revealed that Hayashi ended up spending only 53 seconds during the deliberations on March 1 at the Upper House Budget Committee.
Amid Russia’s war against Ukraine, the G20 foreign ministers discussed a host of key issues, including the Russian invasion, China’s support for Russia, and matters related to the East and South China Seas. It was only natural for Japan to be questioned across Asia and elsewhere for its absence. How could it be so insensitive as to skip so important an international conference, failing to fulfill its responsibility as a major Asian power?
Hayashi’s absence “is likely to ‘upset’ G20 host nation India, Japan’s key partner,” reported the Hindustan Times, the largest newspaper in India. The Economic Times noted the incident “could cast some shadow over New Delhi-Tokyo ties.” Responding to such criticism, Hayashi hurriedly flew to New Delhi and attended the Quad ministerial meeting among Australia, India, Japan, and the US on March 3, but his trip conversely provoked a negative reaction from India.
India Fears China
Kondo pointed out:
“Indian leaders, especially Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, believe that the India-Japan relationship should go beyond just Quad and China strategies. They are expecting Japan to make efforts to build a broad and deep bilateral relationship with India, but Hayashi’s recent actions made it appear that Japan is not interested in earnestly coming to grips with India’s eagerness.”
As regards the war in Ukraine, India has not explicitly criticized China or Russia, on whom it has relied militarily since the old Soviet era. Behind its dependence on the Soviet Union then and Russia now is the harsh reality that its contested border with China, stretching some 3,800 kilometers (2,400 miles), has been attacked thousands of times over the centuries. China has been supporting India’s archrival Pakistan, but the US has not necessarily attached much importance to fostering ties with India.
And today, India fears China, feeling it can ill afford to set back its relations with the superpower given the difficult geopolitical challenges India itself faces on numerous fronts.
Japan will need to deal carefully with India. No matter how eagerly Japan may try to harp on the need to encircle China, India will not budge. To dare simplify India’s diplomatic posture, I would say the Indians are keen to seek amicable relations with both China and Russia—as well as with Japan. It would be sensible to assume that India will seek stronger ties with countries like the US only after establishing satisfactory relations with these big powers within its region.
Because it has been purchasing relatively inexpensive crude oil from Russia, India’s image in Japan has deteriorated. But we Japanese would do well to appreciate some positive aspects concerning India, such as: 1) India is the world’s largest democracy; 2) it has historically enjoyed good relations with Japan; and 3) unlike Pakistan, India has not increased its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
That India is eager to see the Japan-India relationship go beyond Quad and deterring China does not mean that Japan is in a position to take India lightly. We must also be aware that luring India to the Japan-US side, if only a little, will serve broader Japanese and US national interests. In that vein, Hayashi’s actions were a total diplomatic blunder.
Kishida flew to India two and a half weeks after Hayashi, but the spotlight was on his surprise visit to Ukraine for a hastily arranged meeting with President Volodymyr, with little attention paid to India’s presence as a Global South leader.
Kishida’s India visit was decided too abruptly—almost as an afterthought—as he badly longed for a chance to confer with Zelensky as the last of the G7 leaders to visit Ukraine before the May summit in Hiroshima. In fact, it was only on March 3 that the Kyodo News quoted Tokyo as starting to adjust his schedule with New Delhi. Explained Kondo:
“The plan for the Kishida visit was made so abruptly that his summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi unconventionally failed to produce a joint communique. I wonder if our Foreign Ministry might have proposed to the Indian side a summit without a communique from the very outset.”
Visit Used as a Smokescreen
The Kishida-Modi summit was set up at the last minute and received a cold reaction from New Delhi, Kondo pointed out, adding:
“For one thing, there was no welcome dinner or formal reception. Kishida and Modi chatted only 50 minutes standing at Buddha Jeyanti Park in New Delhi, holding in one hand some snack that ordinary citizens eat.”
The two heads of state visited the graveyard of Mahatma Gandhi, accompanied only by junior ministers. Kishida later addressed a gathering at the think tank Indian Council of World Affairs—the same venue that has also seen Chinese premiers speak, including Wen Gia Bao. Back in August 2007, Abe delivered a historic address at the Indian Parliament entitled “A Confluence of Two Seas” calling for closer Japan-India ties. His speech traced in detail the history of the bilateral interchange and connected the significance of his grandfather Kishi’s India visit in 1957 to the big framework of Asian unity. Abe explained to Indian lawmakers the vital significance of a healthy development of solid Japan-India ties going forward. It would not be mistaken to reason that bilateral relations have deepened based on what Abe advocated then, leading to India’s participation in FOIP and the Quad nearly two decades later.
India honored Abe with the opportunity to address the Indian Parliament, but Kishida had to settle for a speech at a think tank. What explains the difference? Japan can not blame India; Japan was solely accountable for this. Obviously, the Indian side construed Kishida’s visit as a smokescreen aimed at enabling him to make a belated visit to Kyiv. It is apparent that Kishida did not want to face the Hiroshima summit as the only attendee who has not been to Ukraine. His visit itself was commendable, but he can be said to have made a major diplomatic blunder by giving the Indian side the impression that he took advantage of India in order to accomplish his mission.
Kishida’s diplomatic posture gives one the impression that he was underestimating the growing significance of cooperation with India and its medium-to-long term strategic importance and that he prioritized making his diplomatic position look good with a visit to Ukraine. Such actions can hardly be viewed as a continuation of Abe’s grand diplomacy. The late prime minister steadfastly took a long-term view of our national interests. That is precisely the spirit Kishida should carry on.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,049 in the May 25, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)