Author : Pratnashree Basu

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Published on Jun 21, 2024 Updated 0 Hours ago

As the PM, Kishida has upheld Abe's legacy by maintaining Japan's focus on regional security and economic resilience, while introducing initiatives to address income inequality and improve diplomatic relations.

Building on foundations: Kishida’s premiership post-Abe

Source Image: Government of Japan

In the recent Okinawa prefectural assembly election held on 16 June 2024, the ruling camp, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Social Democratic Party, won 20 of the 48 seats, while the Opposition, comprising the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Komeito, and Nippon Ishin no Kai, secured 28 seats. The LDP's strategy to downplay its party characteristics, likely influenced by a recent slush fund scandal, seemed effective as all 20 LDP candidates won seats. The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election was crucial for the administration of Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, after it suffered defeats in a series of national and local elections recently following the slush fund scandal. It also comes in the wake of Japan’s main opposition party’s calls for snap elections to test Kishida’s mandate, citing a loss of public trust due to a slush fund scandal within the ruling LDP. While the LDP Acting Secretary General, Tomomi Inada, highlighted a proposed bill to tighten political funding rules, which has gained support from other groups and aims to prevent similar scandals, local media reports suggest Kishida may delay calling a snap election until after the LDP's leadership race in September. 

This development adds to the challenges faced by Kishida during his tenure as Prime Minister, marked by a blend of continuity and subtle shifts from the policies of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Kishida has sought to build on Abe's legacy, particularly in foreign policy and economic strategy, while introducing new initiatives aimed at income redistribution and tackling economic inequality. However, his administration has been marred by declining public support and internal party divisions.

This development adds to the challenges faced by Kishida during his tenure as Prime Minister, marked by a blend of continuity and subtle shifts from the policies of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

Kishida has maintained the fundamental aspects of Abe's vision for Japan's role on the international stage, particularly the emphasis on a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the defence of a liberal international order, ensuring that Japan remains a pivotal player in regional geopolitics. His administration has also reinforced Japan's alliances with key partners such as the United States (US), Australia, and India, solidifying the framework established by Abe to counterbalance China's growing influence in the region. Overall, Kishida has subtly distinguished himself from his predecessor, while progressively continuing the steadfast diplomacy that characterised Abe's tenure.

Both Abe and Kishida joined the Diet in 1993 and collaborated for several years. From 2006 to 2007, Kishida served as the state minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs during Abe's first term as prime minister. Kishida's political career seemed uncertain after not running as a moderate rival in 2015 or 2018, and being excluded from Suga's administration. In 2012, when Abe returned to power, he appointed Kishida as foreign minister, a position the latter held for the longest period in Japan's post-World War II history. He also served as chairman of the LDP policy office from 2017 to 2020, positioning himself as a potential successor. Despite Abe's support for Yoshihide Suga in 2020, Suga's resignation led Abe to support Kishida, who won the party leadership after Sanae Takaichi lost in the first round of voting. His moderate views on nuclear power and foreign affairs won him the backing of party leaders and the LDP's main factions. Kishida's stance on ending neoliberal policies showed little deviation from Abe's economic legacy, indicating a continuation rather than a break from Abe's economic strategies. Nonetheless, despite similarities in foreign and economic policies, Kishida's political style and temperament differ significantly from Abe's.

Kishida has sought to preserve the momentum of “Abenomics,” which combined fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms to rejuvenate Japan's economy. Kishida has committed to significant government spending, particularly in response to the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. His administration has also prioritised digital transformation and green growth, reflecting Abe's initiatives to modernise Japan's economy. However, Kishida has attempted to set himself apart by emphasising income redistribution and tackling economic inequality, thus adding a new dimension to the economic policies of his predecessor.

Kishida has sought to preserve the momentum of “Abenomics,” which combined fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms to rejuvenate Japan's economy.

Kishida's approach to foreign relations has been characterised by a pragmatic blend of diplomacy and assertiveness believing that Japan should “take greater responsibility” and adopt a more assertive role in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. He has continued to build on Abe's efforts to engage with Southeast Asian nations and enhance Japan's strategic partnerships. Kishida's administration has also sought to mend and strengthen ties with South Korea, recognising the importance of a united front in addressing regional security challenges. His swift and decisive response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, including implementing sanctions and condemning the aggression, marked a departure from Abe's more cautious stance during the Crimea annexation, highlighting Kishida's readiness to take bold actions in defence of international norms. To firmly represent Japan's commitment to regional security, Kishida became the first Japanese prime minister to attend a NATO meeting. Abe's tenure saw strengthened ties with Australia, especially with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, resulting in a free trade agreement. His commitment to the Quad—a regional grouping comprising India, the US, Australia, and Japan—was a significant effort to bolster democracy in the Indo-Pacific. Kishida continues to promote strong ties with the Quad and other nations, succeeding in forging robust relationships with South Korea and the Philippines by promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative.

In terms of defence policy, Kishida has advanced Abe's legacy, by further strengthening Japan's military capabilities and deepening security cooperation with allied nations. He has supported the reinterpretation of Japan's pacifist Constitution, allowing for a more proactive defence posture. Amidst rising tensions over the South China Sea and disputes over the Senkaku Islands, Kishida has adopted tougher policies toward China and supported Japan's acquisition of capabilities to reach neighbouring countries' targets to safeguard Japan's territorial integrity.

In terms of defence policy, Kishida has advanced Abe's legacy, by further strengthening Japan's military capabilities and deepening security cooperation with allied nations.

Despite these continuities, Kishida has distinguished his leadership style by adopting a more inclusive and consensus-driven approach. He has effectively advanced Abe's legacy by maintaining Japan's strategic focus on regional security and economic resilience while introducing his own initiatives to address income inequality and enhance diplomatic relations. His tenure thus far reflects a careful balance of preserving the achievements of his predecessor while adapting to the evolving geopolitical and economic landscape. 

Kishida has taken decisive action in response to the slush fund scandal, imposing penalties on senior Abe faction officials. As domestic political challenges test Kishida's leadership and raise questions about his ability to sustain his administration’s policies and initiatives, they underscore the delicate balance Kishida must maintain to navigate both domestic and international political imperatives.


Pratnashree Basu is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Author

Pratnashree Basu

Pratnashree Basu

Pratnashree Basu is an Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, with the Strategic Studies Programme and the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy. She ...

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