Kishida Meets Xi Jinping

When Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping on November 17 on the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ forum, it will be their first conversation since October 2021, when Xi made a brief congratulatory call to Kishida on his first day in office. After more than two years of virtually no dialogue at the leader level, the engagement in Bangkok represents an initial step toward building a “constructive and stable” relationship with Beijing—Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi’s language in his July 2022 speech at CSIS, and a framing that Japanese officials have frequently repeated.

The near absence of senior-level communications between Tokyo and Beijing has been a source of considerable discomfort for Kishida’s government. Foreign Minister Hayashi also has yet to meet in person with his counterpart, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. The two were scheduled to meet on the margins of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) events in Cambodia in early August 2022, but Wang canceled the meeting after Hayashi sharply and publicly criticized People’s Republic of China (PRC) military exercises around Taiwan. The one notable exception is National Security Adviser Takeo Akiba ’s visit to Tianjin in late August for meetings with State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Tokyo anticipated that Beijing would cancel this engagement, too—but it did not, a sign that Beijing also hoped to rekindle the relationship. Akiba chartered an aircraft and held seven hours of talks with Yang.

The tepid signs of reengagement come at a time of deep concern in Japan about China’s ambitions and coercive behavior as Xi embarks on a third term. China’s military exercises in August highlighted the direct risks to Japan of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait; five PRC ballistic missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, including one that impacted a few dozen miles from the island of Yonaguni. China’s political support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked outrage in Japan, and prompted Kishida to warn in June that “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.” PRC maritime pressure in the East China Sea (ECS) continues unabated, with the China Coast Guard maintaining a steady presence near the Senkaku Islands and regularly intruding into territorial waters; a new permanent hydrocarbon platform near the ECS median line signals Beijing’s intent to continue unilateral development of energy resources in the area, despite a 2008 agreement to jointly develop the area.

Against this backdrop, Japanese public sentiment toward China, which began to turn downward more than a decade ago, is sharply negative. In a Japanese government survey released earlier this year, just 14 percent of respondents described relations with China as “good,” a figure that is notably consistent across genders and age groups; just 20 percent expressed feelings of friendship. The widespread concern about China is a major driver of Kishida’s ambitious defense agenda . Tokyo next month will release a new National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and five-year defense procurement plan, which will likely feature unprecedented increases in planned defense spending, to as much as 2 percent of GDP by 2027. Although some of this growth will likely reflect a redefinition of existing spending, the buildup will include new investments in long-range precision strike capabilities, uncrewed aerial and undersea systems, space and cyber assets, and munition stockpiles—all premised on the need to strengthen deterrence against the potential threat from China. These steps, which just a few years ago would have been controversial, have strong Japanese public support.

But even with this negative political backdrop, economic interdependence between Japan and China remains deep—a reality that underpins Kishida’s interest in rebuilding ties. In 2021, China accounted for 22 percent of Japan’s imports and 24 percent of its exports—by far Japan’s largest trading partner (the United States accounts for 18 percent and 11 percent, respectively). Japanese foreign direct investment in China was about $10 billion in 2021, a figure that has been roughly stable for the last decade; though far less than investment in North America, Japanese FDI in China during this period was comparable to the combined volume in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. These deep economic links make the Japanese business community an important voice on China policy, and that voice has been quietly pressing for greater stability in bilateral ties. At a press conference on September 20 , Masakazu Tokura, the chairman of Japan’s largest business organization, asserted, “Japan-China relations presently face political challenges, and geopolitical risks exist in the areas around both countries. In such times, there is all the more reason to continue exchange to seek out common interests, even if minor differences remain. . . . The world cannot thrive without China, and China cannot decouple itself from the world.”

Japan is taking steps to adjust the terms of this interdependence by protecting critical technologies and insulating its economy from potential coercion, even as it seeks to preserve it. New “economic security” legislation passed by the Diet in May 2022 focuses on four key areas: promoting secure supply chains of critical materials designated by the government as vital for national security, strengthening protections for critical infrastructure, funding research and development and promoting public-private partnerships in critical technology areas linked to national security, and instituting a patent screening and nondisclosure system for certain advanced technologies. Japan, and Japanese companies, are taking steps to reduce risks and vulnerabilities in the relationship with China—while preserving the benefits of a “stable and constructive” relationship.

Kishida’s meeting with Xi thus serves to highlight the two dimensions to Japan’s approach to the relationship with China: a focus on building Japan’s capacity to resist Chinese coercion and aggression—both militarily and economically, and on its own and with the United States—while at the same time promoting the mutual benefits of deep economic interdependence. This combination of external and internal balancing , strengthening Japan’s own resilience and deepening the U.S.-Japan security alliance, are the hallmarks of a strategy first charted by former prime minister Shinzo Abe, and now in Kishida’s hands to carry forward. Abe’s success in establishing a new equilibrium in Japan’s relations with China was one of his signature achievements—and one that won the respect of President Xi, who sent a condolence message after Abe’s assassination in July. Kishida will be judged in part on his ability to rebuild it.

For Kishida, the politics at home of reestablishing this equilibrium with China are fraught. Abe’s hawkish views and political pedigree—he hailed from a strand of the Liberal Democratic Party that historically favored a strong defense and closer ties with Taiwan—inoculated him from criticism at home for engaging China’s leaders, such as when he conducted a state visit to Beijing in October 2018. Kishida’s roots in the Kochikai faction of the LDP—traditionally more dovish and pro-engagement with Japan’s neighbors—afford him less insulation. Perhaps reflecting this vulnerability, and to set the predicate for his meeting with Xi, Kishida was unusually explicit in criticizing China’s behavior in his remarks at the East Asia Summit on November 13 (author’s translation): “China’s activities in the East China Sea that violate Japan’s sovereignty are continuing and intensifying.” It is also no accident that the meeting with Xi falls after Kishida’s engagements with the United States, South Korea, and other key partners. Tokyo waited to be certain that President Biden’s meeting with Xi would take place before moving forward with its own.

Kishida’s meeting with Xi will be short on deliverables, and long on areas of dispute. He will push back on China’s maritime pressure around the Senkaku Islands; affirm Japan’s interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait (note: this is not the same as a commitment to defend Taiwan); and call on Xi to restrain North Korea from further provocations, including a possible nuclear test. Kishida will seek greater transparency from Xi on China’s nuclear arsenal, which Beijing has expanded significantly. And he will call out what Japan sees as Beijing’s suspect development finance practices, which have exacerbated the debt burden of some recipients in the developing world. In sum, as Foreign Minister Hayashi stated in his CSIS speech, Kishida will “say what needs to be said to China.” But he will also seek cooperation on areas of mutual interest, like climate change and global health, and he will look for indications that Beijing is prepared to engage on bilateral economic issues important to Japan’s business community, such as technology transfer rules and intellectual property protection.

Japanese officials occasionally describe Japan’s relationship with China as a mix of competition, confrontation, and cooperation. For the last several years, and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the emphasis has been on the first two. Kishida’s meeting with Xi will test the prospects of restoring greater balance and rebuilding the third.

Christopher B. Johnstone is the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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