What does Suga’s exit imply about Japan’s attitude towards China-Taiwan confrontation?

There is no clear indication that the election of a new LDP-leader-cum-Japanese-prime-minister will lead to a shift away from Japan’s increasingly robust rejection of Chinese designs on the region, especially with regards to Taiwan. Fumio Kishida, the presumed front-runner and former foreign minister, has a reputation for being honest but wishy-washy, but The Japan Times had this to say about him:

…Kishida said Japan should seek to cooperate with Taiwan and countries that share its values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, as authoritarian countries wield more power. “Taiwan is at the front line of the standoff between the U.S. and China,” he said. “Looking at the situation with Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, I have a strong feeling that the Taiwan Strait will be the next big problem.”

Often seen as a dove, Kishida heads a faction within the LDP that was once known for its friendly ties with China, a policy he said was tailored to the diplomatic landscape of the time and needed to be adapted to a new reality. “The times have changed a great deal,” he said. “China has also changed. China is now a big presence in international society, and I have various concerns about its authoritarian attitude.”

Former PM Abe is backing Sanae Takaichi, who is little known except for being a right-winger. Suga himself is backing Taro Kono. It seems unlikely that either of these two candidates would soften Japan’s increasingly harder line against China.

One LDP wild-card perhaps remains, former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is more popular with the rural grassroots of the party than he is with the parliamentary party. Ishiba is known to be less enthusiastic about altering the pacifist elements of the Japanese constitution, but he is yet to declare his candidacy.

And then there is still the tiny matter of a general election which will follow hot on the heels of the LDP leadership election. The LDP is generally expected to win.

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The Tokyo Review asks if the LDP—even in its more aggressive wings—is ready to take on China and defend Taiwan:

…is Abe’s pragmatism and Suga’s more assertive posture the expression of a well thought-out strategic vision or rather something closer to ad hoc improvisation in response to the needs and opportunities of the moment?

…a special investigation by the Asahi Shimbun into the politics and foreign policy of the Abe administration has shown that the decision to adopt a cooperative posture was not an object of consensus within the Cabinet. Rather, it was the result of a last-minute decision by Abe to side with the more dovish members of his teams without warning the more hawkish ones.

Abe struggled to use the “Quad” and  a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a source of leverage rather than a source of tension with China. His administration found it challenging to insulate Japanese business interests from geopolitical tensions

Suga endorsed relatively tough language on China, signaling a shift away from cooperation and toward more confrontation. But he has yet to spell out his vision for Japanese foreign policy and appears to be largely responding to U.S. pressure and to the current dominance of hawkish voices in Tokyo.

All this suggests that Japan could be stumbling towards a more frictional relationship with Beijing. With an absence of deliberate strategic reassessment, it’s unlikely the consequences and trade-offs that this could entail have really been thought through. What’s more, both countries have just signed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which is likely to further anchor China at the center of the regional supply chains of East Asia.

…is Japan truly ready to commit to the defense of Taiwan in case of an attempt at reunification by force? Answering these questions requires a deeper understanding of China’s intentions, capabilities and where relations with China fit within Japan’s broader goals in East Asia.

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