China policy takes centre stage as Japan’s ruling party searches for new leader

Elections to select a new leader for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could finally see some clarity over Tokyo’s policy towards China.

To date that policy has been muddled. The hawks under former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, are dominant in the party. And while their policy to China seems decided – the creation of a Japan-Taiwan-USA axis to confront Beijing over South China Sea territorial disputes, Hong Kong and Taiwan – they have yet to gain popular support for the policy.

Most Japanese do not want to be dragged into a war with China, it seems.

To date they have also been restrained by the pro-China LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and the LDP’s coalition party in government, the Buddhist-based and pacifist Komeito.

Beijing makes no secret of its pro-Nikai feelings. But in today’s climate Beijing’s blessing is not quite the plus it used to be. Already the knives are out for Nikai who is required anyway to step down from his powerful party position. And while he has factional backing, it is unlikely the 82-year-old party veteran will want to continue his rather lonely battle with the party hawks.

But the hawks too have their problems. While they have some heavy-weights on their side – former prime minister and party activist Taro Aso to begin with and the very pro-Taiwan defence minister Nobuo Kishi in particular – they find it hard to come up with a firm candidate.

They seem to have settled on an Abe favourite – a very hawkish lady, Sanae Takaichi, who lacks her own faction but has previously served as Internal Affairs minister under Abe. She makes no secret of her nationalistic feelings, being a prominent visitor each year to the home of Japan’s lack of war guilt sentiments, the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

That makes her a target for Beijing criticism – not the handicap now that it used to be. But on the other hand is a steady dose of nationalistic urgings and anti-Beijing vitriol quite the advantage she needs to overcome a lack of personal dynamism and traditional LDP misogyny?

Yoshihide Suga, the about-to-resign prime minister, will not be missed. His drop in the polls, from a high 70 per cent figure when taking office to around 30 per cent now (the accepted failing grade for anyone who wants to run the nation), is blamed on his dour personality and mishandling of the current COVID-19 crisis. The recent LDP loss in three local elections, including the important Yokohama electorate which Suga claims as his own, has not helped.

And there is no doubt Japan flubbed badly in its immediate response to the pandemic, with frequent policy changes and vaccination delays. It began with a henny-penny approach which said disaster is upon us and only doctors and trained health givers could give the jabs needed for safety. Now lagging behind most other advanced nations (a claimed 47 per cent vaccination rate) it accepts walk-in injections.

But Suga can also blame the television box for his troubles. For years he was a familiar face, appearing regularly as chief cabinet secretary reporting on the nation’s day-to-day policy decisions. When Abe suddenly resigned as prime minister in August 2020 claiming health problems (though some past scandals were also closing in on him at the time) Suga was a fairly easy choice as a fill-in candidate.

But he never had the policy instincts or backing to serve as national leader. His fall from grace was ordained from the start.

Meanwhile LDP moderates outside the Abe-Aso camp seem to be gravitating to current vaccination rolllout minister, the 58-year-old Taro Kono, as preferred candidate. Thanks to school and university study in the US he speaks good English – an international reputation is something Japan’s leaders usually lack. He also enjoys popularity at home, and is known for having donated part of his liver to rescue his father, the dovish and former leading LDP politician Yohei Kono.

His main declared opponent, the rather colourless Fumio Kishida, has foreign policy and pro-US credentials, but seems unlikely to pose a threat.

The prospects for that perennial seeker of LDP leadership, the 64-year-old Shigeru Ishiba, could improve now that he reportedly seeks support from the Nikai-controlled grouping in the party. He also enjoys support at the LDP grass-roots level for his criticisms of the LDP hierarchies.