When on 13 September, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet, it was widely speculated that Kishida wanted to resuscitate his popular rating which had been plummeting since August, enabling him to dissolve the Cabinet and call for a snap election and also secure his position for the LDP leadership race that is going to take place in late 2024.
In the reshuffle exercise, two aspects stood out: his choice of a new foreign minister and a new defence minister; and women empowerment by inducting five female law makers in his 19 member Cabinet, the third time after Junichiro Koizumi and Sinzo Abe who too had five women ministers in their cabinets. In this commentary, the factors for replacing the foreign and defence ministers with new faces needs close scrutiny. The new foreign and defence ministers in the cabinet bring impressive, unexpected strengths to their jobs and their performance and policy directions shall be keenly watched as both are likely to chose policies different from their predecessors .
For many, the choice of Yoko Kamikawa as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minoru Kihara as Minister for Defense, as two key diplomatic and security appointments, was a surprise. These two changes hint at a major shift toward preparations for a Taiwan contingency.
Kamikawa was earlier Minister of Justice in the Abe Cabinet twice, during which she had demonstrated her mind with tough decisions, which probably impressed Kishida. She was resolute in her decision-making and ordered the executions of 16 death inmates, which also included Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto). The cult had terrorized Japan with its sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto Prefecture and on subway lines in Tokyo in 1995.Thirteen people died and at least 5,800 injured in five co-ordinated attacks on three train lines. Sarin, a nerve agent was developed by the Nazis and Japan’s worst domestic experience since the end of World War II.
Abe’s remark about Kamikawa shows she is a woman of steel with firm conviction and bold in decision-making, the virtues for an able and effective minister. Abe had remarked about Kamikawa when she was the Justice Minister in his Cabinet thus: “Previous ministers of justice would often hesitate to carry out executions or consult with me because they could not decide for themselves. Kamikawa had no such reservations. After the executions, she would report to me saying, ‘It is done.’ She is a very determined individual.”
Kishida was aware that Yoshimasa Hayashi who vacated left office for Kamikawa was renowned for his pro-China stance. Hayashi chaired the bipartisan Jaan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union until he was appointed foreign minister in the Kishida Cabinet. Distrust had grown between Japan and the US as two key security partners in Asia following Hayashi’s appointment as the foreign minister by Kishida. In fact Washington was alarmed with Kishida’s choice for this very important position. It is possible that Washington’s distrust of Kishida’s choice of Hayashi as the foreign minister was the reason why it took Kishida a year and three months after assuming office before he visited Washington.
Kishida probably realised that he must save, defend and further strengthen Japan’s ties with the US from derailment on any ground at a time when China’s belligerence towards Taiwan put the region’s security scenario at an edge. This compelled Kishida to replace Hayashi with a bit hard-liner Kamikawa in preparation for a Taiwan contingency. Kamikawa’s previous experience as Policy Planning Assistant to a US Senator gives her the necessary experience for her new role.
The authoritarian Xi Jinping has governed China by the rule of power, though cracks are suspected in his governance model when he replaced suddenly his foreign and defence ministers for reasons unknown to the outside world. Subsequently it surfaced that Qin Gang was sacked as foreign minister and replaced by veteran Wang Li in July as the new foreign minister after a mysterious one-month absence, had an extramarital affair that resulted in the birth of a child when he was China’s top envoy in Washington from July 2021 until January 2023. By this conduct, Gang was accused of having compromised China’s national security. Such unpleasant conduct of a top official did not deter Xi to flex his military muscle towards Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province that must be integrated, if necessary by force. That Beijing openly disregards international law with its military expansionism and spreading disinformation by intensifying propaganda is open secret.
China has flown warplanes towards Taiwan on a regular basis in order to intimidate Taiwan with a view to bring Taiwan into submission. In the latest Chinese move, China’s military sent 103 warplanes toward Taiwan in early September within 24 hours. The previous daily record of Chinese military flights near Taiwan was 91 planes on 10 April.
Chinese warplanes fly toward the self-governing island on a near-daily basis but typically in smaller numbers. China’s incursions into Taiwan’s air space and territorial waters have increased after Sino-US ties nosedived over a host of issues. Beijing is cognizant of the fact that the US is Taiwan’s main supplier of arms and opposes any bid to change Taiwan’s status by force. Taiwan’s defence ministry called the Chinese military action “harassment” and warned that such actions could deteriorate further the current tense atmosphere. The recent Chinese actions may be an attempt to sway Taiwan’s presidential election in January 2024. Beijing leadership is uncomfortable with Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party that leans toward formal independence for the island. Against this background, it would be interesting to see if Kamikawa will employ her characteristic fortitude in dealing with China.
If this is the possible perspective of the new foreign minister, what change can one expect in Japan’s defence posture under Kihara as the new defence minister? No doubt being a security expert, and having served as a Parliamentary Vice Minister of Defense in the past, Kihara has the right credentials to deal with Japan’s security challenges more appropriately.
Kishida attempts to prepare for the Taiwan contingency and choice of Kihara may be seen against the background that Kihara had participated in July 2023 in a tabletop simulation of contingencies involving Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands (Ishigaki City, Okinawa Ken). For the event, Kihara played the role of Minister of Defense. Diet members, former senior SDFs and other government officials also participated in the war game.
Kihara is a leading pro-Taiwan Diet member and had been visiting Taiwan at least once a month. He was also the Secretary-General of the cross-country Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council. He was also associated with organisations that aim to strengthen Japan-Taiwan relations.
Leading political leaders from either side have been visiting each others’ countries. In July Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan Speaker You Si-kun (equivalent to the Speaker of the House) travelled to Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Ken by ferry. In the absence of immigration services, special measures were taken to facilitate the procedure for You’s entry to the island. The symbolism of choosing to travel by ferry cannot be missed as You wanted to send the message that opening ferry service may be considered linking Taiwan and Yonaguni. You’s visit was also reportedly intended to simulate the arrival of refugees on Yonaguni in the event of a Taiwan contingency.
Kihara has cordial relations with Sanae Takaichi, Minister of State for Economic Security. This relationship between two important ministers should allow for smooth collaboration on policy matters regarding Taiwan. In August 2023, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense submitted an annual report on China’s military strength to the Legislative Yuan. In this the ministry warned that Xi “may push forward the process of unification with Taiwan during his mid-term (before 2027). The moot question is, notwithstanding the US response in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act binding the US to come to Taiwan’s rescue, can Kishida government respond to the tense situation in the Far East by the two key new appointments or at least prepare the stage for any future leaders who would succeed him as security priorities are clearly put in place? Xi Jinping, are you watching?