Tense relations with China call for ‘shitataka’ approach to Kishida

File photo of the Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has often met with Chinese officials during his tenure as foreign minister, such as this 2016 meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing.

“Shitataka” is a Japanese word with multiple meanings that even the Japanese have a hard time explaining in simple terms. For example, it can be used in the following way: “She is a quick-witted and shitataka woman.” In this case, “shitataka” has a positive meaning, such as “smart”, “patient”, or “a tough negotiator”. But it can also have a slightly negative meaning, like “calculate” or “cunning”.

On September 29, Japan and China will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1972. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office last October, often uses the word “shitataka” to describe his approach to relations with China.

“Maybe we are in a festive mood as we mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations, but given the current situation, it is important to stabilize China-Japan relations with a sense of urgency. The “shitataka” of Japanese diplomacy is put to the test.

Kishida stressed the importance of “shitataka” diplomacy towards China during a radio broadcast in January. Referring to China’s aggressive maritime expansion and human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, he said, “I will say what needs to be said. [to China]. I will firmly raise these issues.

If we interpret Kishida’s “shitataka diplomacy” literally, it means that the Japanese government must be “smart”, “patient”, and sometimes “calculating” in its dealings with China. However, that is easier said than done.

Relations between Japan and China have undergone dramatic changes over the past half century.

When Kakuei Tanaka became Prime Minister in July 1972, he appointed his ally Masayoshi Ohira Minister of Foreign Affairs and immediately began negotiations for the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. The “Nixon Shock” of July 1971, when US President Richard Nixon announced in a televised address that he would visit China, had rapidly intensified the trend of normalizing diplomatic relations with China within Japan.

The Chinese side was also in a rush to normalize relations due to its escalating conflict with the Soviet Union and the need for Japanese economic support for its reform and opening-up policies. Tanaka visited Beijing about two months after taking office. He reached a conclusion on establishing diplomatic relations with China and broke with Taiwan.

For a long time thereafter, Japan-China relations enjoyed a period of friendship and exchanges. One reason is that Japan has supported China’s economic development. The total amount of Japanese official development assistance (ODA) to China, which began after the normalization of diplomatic relations, amounted to more than 3.6 trillion yen (about $26 billion) over 40 years until all projects are completed in fiscal year 2021. The money was used to build roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure in China.

China has experienced rapid economic growth and overtook Japan in terms of nominal gross domestic product in 2010, taking over Japan’s position as the world’s second largest economy.

Not only has China’s military power increased, but it has also reached the world’s highest level of technological capability in areas such as information technology and artificial intelligence. It is now said that China is the only rival of the United States.

Looking at China’s progress over the past decades, it can be said that China is the one that has increased its national power in a “shitataka” way. Even today, as the world’s second largest economy, China is unwilling to give up its status as a developing country, as evidenced by its leadership of the G77, a group of developing countries at the United Nations. This group has grown from 77 countries when it was created to 134 countries today.

Over the past decade, China has sent ships to the waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands as part of a campaign to gradually normalize its navigation there. Currently, Chinese ships are harassing Japanese fishing boats approaching the Senkaku Islands. These moves by China are believed to be aimed at bolstering its claim that it has territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands and making that claim a fait accompli.

Japan has repeatedly protested against China’s maritime expansion in the East and South China Seas and has consistently called for law and order. Patience is one of the strengths of the Japanese people, but in this territorial dispute is it possible for Japan to confront China in a “calculating” and “cunning” way? As a country that values ​​democracy and law and order, it is difficult for Japan to ignore international order and rules.

Kishida is from the Kochikai, a traditional LDP faction once led by Ohira, whom Kishida respects. Not only was Ohira appointed Tanaka’s foreign minister, but he later served as prime minister himself until his death in 1980, at a time when normalized diplomatic relations between Japan and China were still new.

The Kochikai faction was founded by Hayato Ikeda, who served as Prime Minister in the early 1960s. Ikeda advocated “Sino-Japanese friendship” and promoted Sino-Japanese trade. Historically, therefore, the Kishida faction has been pro-China.

“I don’t like being called a disciple of China,” Kishida said at a meeting of Kochikai members last December. Shortly before that, he appointed faction member Yoshimasa Hayashi as Foreign Minister. Hayashi had served as chairman of the Japan-China Parliamentary Friendship Association. Conservative members of the Liberal Democratic Party complained about Hayashi’s nomination, saying he was too close to China.

The Japanese government wanted to improve China-Japan relations and make them more stable ahead of the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations in September. According to government officials, the government was considering a three-step arrangement. The first step was to be a meeting between the Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers in Cambodia on August 4. The second stop was a meeting between National Security Bureau Director Takeo Akiba and senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo. The Japanese government hoped that these two steps would lead to communication between the leaders, such as a conference call or an online type meeting, around the September 29 anniversary.

The meeting of foreign ministers, convened by the Japanese government, was abruptly canceled by the Chinese side about two hours before its start, in response to a visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The August 4 meeting between Akiba and Yang lasted seven hours, however, and a wide range of topics were discussed. Details of the meeting were not disclosed, but it reportedly served as a “place for a new beginning” in Sino-Japanese relations. On August 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a telegram of sympathy to Kishida, who was infected with the novel coronavirus. It was seen as a positive sign from Xi ahead of the summit meeting.

The Chinese side is also believed to be keen to stabilize relations with Japan amid deepening US-China confrontation over the situation in Taiwan. Xi, who is seeking a third term at the party’s congress in the fall, likely feels a pressing need to show stability at home and abroad.

Several foreign leaders are due to be invited to Tokyo for the state funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on September 27. It is expected that there will also be opportunities for dialogue with Chinese officials on this occasion. Kishida will have the heavy task of “saying what needs to be said” to China, while trying to stabilize Japanese-Chinese relations. The true value of Kishida’s “shitataka” diplomacy to China will soon be tested.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Junya Hashimoto

Hashimoto is an associate editor in the political news department of the Yomiuri Shimbun.