Japan PM Kishida leans closer to Taiwan with hawkish Cabinet picks

Tokyo has also reportedly elevated security ties with Taipei by appointing an active government official – instead of a retired officer as per tradition – as its de facto defence attache to Taiwan.

Walter Sim

Walter Sim

The Straits Times


Newly appointed Japanese Defence Minister Minoru Kihara has been a frequent visitor to Taiwan. PHOTO: REUTERS/THE STRAITS TIMES

September 25, 2023

TOYKO – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has replaced a pro-China foreign minister and enlisted a pro-Taiwan defence minister to his Cabinet, in what observers say is symbolic of Japan’s concerns over the Taiwan Strait.

In a Sept 13 reshuffle, Mr Minoru Kihara, 54, was named defence chief, replacing Mr Yasukazu Hamada, 67. Two days later, Mr Kihara relinquished his role as secretary-general of a Japan-Taiwan parliamentary group, in the name of political neutrality.

Meanwhile, Ms Yoko Kamikawa, 70, was named Japan’s top diplomat, taking over from the dovish Mr Yoshimasa Hayashi, 62, who previously chaired the Japan-China parliamentary group and has repeatedly urged dialogue with Beijing.

“Both are more hawkish than their predecessors, though it will take some time for them to show their unique colours,” Dr Sota Kato of The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research think-tank told The Straits Times (ST).

The appointments come amid a serious escalation in tensions over the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng warned on Saturday that the situation was “getting out of hand” as China had sent record numbers of fighter jets near Taiwan in recent days.

China views self-ruling Taiwan as its territory and has not ruled out using military force to reunite with it. Taiwan rejects such sovereignty claims.

Chinese vessels are also repeatedly entering waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that Japan administers and China claims.

Tokyo has also reportedly elevated security ties with Taipei by appointing an active government official – instead of a retired officer as per tradition – as its de facto defence attache to Taiwan.

Japan’s right-wing Sankei newspaper said in an analysis that the appointments “hint at a shift towards preparations for a Taiwan contingency”.

Mr Kihara has been a frequent visitor to Taiwan, and has met President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice-President Lai Ching-te, who is currently the front runner for January’s presidential race.

Although a first-time minister, he is an old hand at dealing with security issues, having served as special adviser to former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga. He was also involved in Japan’s drastic defence policy overhaul with its revised National Security Strategy in December 2022, as well as ongoing talks to loosen a self-imposed ban on the export of lethal weapons.

In April, when Mr Kihara was asked how Japan would respond in a Taiwan contingency, he said that Japan would likely play a role similar to Poland’s in accepting refugees from Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing invasion.

Since becoming defence chief, he has said that a key priority was to “fundamentally strengthen” Japan’s defence capabilities in the light of the “most severe and complicated security environment since World War II”.

This, he said, was on the back of China’s rapid military build-up and assertiveness in the East and South China seas.

Among his first engagements in his role was a two-day tour, ending on Saturday, of Self-Defence Forces bases in Okinawa and Kumamoto prefectures, as Japan has been increasing its military presence in its south-west.

Dr Kazuto Suzuki of the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo described Mr Kihara as “very technocratic”, and said his appointment would ensure the full implementation of the policies that he helped to formulate.

“He has a concrete view on China and Taiwan,” Dr Suzuki told ST, adding that the sentiment was in line with other hawkish Liberal Democratic Party politicians, including Mr Abe.

As for Ms Kamikawa, she made her diplomatic debut in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, where she held court with other foreign ministers, including those from Group of Seven countries.

She was a no-nonsense justice minister who, the Sankei newspaper noted in a report, had ordered the executions of 16 death row inmates, including Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that was behind the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Metro.

“Other justice ministers would often hesitate to carry out executions, or consult with me, because they could not decide for themselves. Kamikawa had no such reservations,” the report cited Mr Abe as having said.

US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel told Nikkei Asia in an interview that Ms Kamikawa was “a very capable and persuasive voice on behalf of our alliance, our shared interests, and our respect for a rules-based order”.

Dr Suzuki echoed this, saying: “Her appointment effectively demonstrates that the rule of law is at the heart of Japanese diplomacy. She will send the message that Japan is a leader in the rule of law, particularly in regard to China, though she can also project a softer image.”

This softer image stems from her gender, which Ms Kamikawa said can be an advantage. She said: “I want to leverage the unique perspectives of women in foreign policy and steadily achieve results through strong teamwork.”

She was among five women assigned to the Cabinet, and the first female foreign minister since Ms Yoriko Kawaguchi served in the post between 2002 and 2004 as one of a record five women in former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Cabinet.

Mr Kishida’s record-equalling appointment of five female ministers, Dr Suzuki said, could send a positive message that Japan was serious about women empowerment. But he noted that the Prime Minister did the cause no favours by naming zero women among his 54 junior vice-ministers.

Ms Kamikawa graduated from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School and served briefly as a policy planning assistant for a United States senator.

But her political career has focused largely on domestic issues, and she is a relative neophyte in diplomacy. This, however, could give Mr Kishida – who was foreign minister from 2012 to 2017 – more room to manoeuvre.

The Prime Minister suggested that Mr Hayashi might have become too dominant in the role, when asked by a reporter why he was replaced.

“The foreign and defence ministers play significant roles in diplomacy, but at the same time, leader-level diplomacy carries considerable weight,” he said. “I would like to take charge of foreign policy.”

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