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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves as he boards a plane bound for Britain after concluding the second leg of his G7 tour in Italy. Photo: Kyodo

Was China the focus of Japan PM Kishida’s whirlwind G7 ‘summit diplomacy’ tour?

  • Fumio Kishida used his week-long tour of France, Italy, Britain, Canada and the US to shore up support and seek security assurances as tensions rise
  • Analysts say the ‘emerging possibility’ of a Taiwan invasion focused minds as Tokyo balances military deterrence of China with economic engagement
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida embarked on a whistle-stop tour of fellow G7 member states this week, seeking closer defence ties and assurances from Western partners against a backdrop of rising geopolitical risk and growing threats to the rules-based international order.
Russia’s almost year-old invasion of Ukraine and the “emerging possibility” of mainland China invading Taiwan would have been front of mind during his week-long “summit diplomacy” tour, analysts said, as Kishida laid the groundwork for Japan hosting the next meeting of the Group of 7 wealthy club of nations in May.
In France on Monday President Emmanuel Macron said “Japan can count on our unfailing support” against North Korea, in particular, while also vowing to continue “joint actions in the Indo-Pacific”.
Italy and Japan on Tuesday agreed to form a “strategic partnership” and for their foreign and defence ministers to begin holding joint “two-plus-two” security talks like the ones Tokyo already has with the US, India and Australia.


UK and Japan sign major defence deal allowing easier troop deployments and joint exercises

UK and Japan sign major defence deal allowing easier troop deployments and joint exercises
In Britain on Wednesday, Kishida signed a defence agreement allowing the two countries to deploy forces on each other’s soil – similar to the one Japan and Australia signed in January – followed by a visit to Ottawa on Thursday where he was set to meet Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau.
A summit in the United States on Friday with President Joe Biden concludes the trip. Japan this week formally approved US plans for a new marine quick-reaction force and deepened military cooperation across its Okinawan island chain near Taiwan.

Tomoo Kikuchi, an associate professor at Japan’s Waseda University, said Kishida’s G7 tour provided “an opportunity for Japan to strengthen military ties with its Western partners and to play a more proactive role in upholding the rules-based international order” as the ongoing war in Ukraine and “emerging possibility” of a Taiwan invasion focused minds.

“The international security environment remains deeply unstable,” agreed Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, who said Kishida was “likely pressing for the G7 to continue efforts to push back against unilateral attempts to change the status quo”.

‘Sending a signal to China’

Japan is pushing ahead with its largest military build-up in decades and is likely intent on “sending a signal to China” with Kishida’s G7 tour that it will unite with the US and other allies and partners “should China take any unilateral action in the region, in Taiwan in particular”, Kikuchi said.
Under a revised National Security Strategy announced last month, Tokyo committed to increasing its annual defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP over the next five years – making it the third largest in the world after the US and China, based on current figures – and Miller said the G7 trip gave Kishida an opportunity to explain and obtain support for Japan’s more robust defence posture.

Yet China remains Japan’s largest trading partner – bilateral trade hit a high of US$371.4 billion in 2021, according to China Customs – creating something of a diplomatic headache for Tokyo.

Deterring China militarily and yet engaging it economically is a careful balancing act for Japan
Yoichiro Sato, professor of Asia-Pacific studies

“Deterring China militarily and yet engaging it economically is a careful balancing act for Japan,” said Yoichiro Sato, a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, who thinks Kishida’s “summit diplomacy” was primarily aimed at preparing the ground for May’s G7 summit in Hiroshima.

But “rules-based order in the maritime theatre” and growing military ties with other member states would have been on the agenda as well, he said, as were reassurances that a proposed “Chip 4” alliance between Japan, the US, South Korea and Taiwan on semiconductors would not “discriminate against” other G7 members.

Japanese official signals that Tokyo will join US in chip ban against China

China’s nationalistic Global Times tabloid on Wednesday accused Japan of engaging in an “anti-China tandem” with the other G7 members, and “displaying a hard-line attitude toward China”.

“If this is the main direction of Japanese diplomacy in 2023, it will be a terrible mistake,” said the daily’s editorial titled “Tokyo needs to strategically sober up as soon as possible”.

Kishida must also be wary of domestic politics as his “cabinet stands on a fluid foundation”, Sato said, after the loss of four ministers in under three months to a host of scandals.
Kishida shakes hands with Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Paris on Monday. The French president said “Japan can count on our unfailing support”. Photo: AFP
The Japanese leader’s personal approval rating sank below 30 per cent towards the end of last year as his ruling Liberal Democratic Party became less cohesive amid the fallout from the Unification Church controversy following former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination.

All Kishida’s diplomatic work, Sato warned “would be wasted if his own cabinet loses popular support before the G7 summit” in May.

Meanwhile, before he embarked on his trip, Kishida held a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on January 6 in which he pledged that Japan would strengthen ties with Ukraine and “play an active role” as G7 host.

Ukraine war, Taiwan tensions boost support for doubling Japan’s defence budget

“Kishida hopes to play a leadership role by offering reconstruction aid to Ukraine,” said Sato, who is also a senior visiting research fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Tokyo has so far focused on sending humanitarian help to Ukraine such as by providing power generators and lighting apparatus, as well as supplying bulletproof vests, helmets and other non-lethal military aid.