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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

What’s in Prime Minister Kishida’s 2023 Policy Speech – Part 1

Prime Minister Kishida speaking in the Diet

A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio summarized his administration’s policy goals at the opening of the 211th session of the Diet. Although this speech happens around the same time of year as the American State of the Union address, the Japanese version is less of “the state of our union is strong” and more of “we have a lot of things to do.” The full list of policy items was extensive, to the point where I almost expected to hear “Dear Santa” at the start of the speech.

You can watch the speech in its entirety and read a full transcript on the Prime Minister’s web site. At this time, an English version has not been posted, but since a translation does exist for last year’s speech, I’m sure one will appear for this speech soon.

The Prime Minister wasted no time setting up the dire conditions that prompted political action: “We are at the third major turning point in modern Japanese history.” The first two were the Meiji Restoration way back in 1868 and the conclusion of World War II in the mid-1940s. Both events saw major transformations in Japanese society, especially where governance is concerned. To be honest, Kishida didn’t propose anything as earth-shattering as what transpired during those previous two “turning points,” but in a world where pandemics last for years and world powers invade their neighbors, it’s not surprising that he would allude to big changes.

The speech covered nine major policy areas. Kishida’s comments for four of them—disaster planning and ongoing Tōhoku reconstruction support, transitioning to a “Living with Coronavirus” mindset, opportunities for updating portions of the constitution, and restoring political trust after recent scandals—were brief and lacking in detail, and I won’t be covering them. For the remaining five topics, the policies he laid out were substantial. In today’s article, I will discuss the two sections that deal with international topics. Look for a summary of his domestic concerns in my next post.

Radical Strengthening of Defense / 防衛力の抜本的強化

Two of the five primary policy areas dealt with international topics, specifically defense and diplomacy. Kishida opened the entire speech with a discussion of defense, although his comments were limited due to the volume and extent of such announcements in the weeks leading up to this speech.

Here he repeats what for many was the most shocking announcement: a doubling of defense spending over the next five years, amounting to 43 trillion yen. While he insists that Japan’s first focus will always be “proactive diplomacy,” the new budget allocates funds for “counterattack capabilities, particular in the southwest region.” For those of you reaching for your maps of Japan, he is referring to strategies to deal with China and North Korea, although neither nation is mentioned by name in this part of the speech.

Beyond such blunt weapons, the enhanced budget seeks to bolster defense capabilities in cyberspace and outer space. For the existing self-defense forces, there will be upgrades and additions to military equipment. And these are not short-term investments. Once the initial 43 trillion has been spent, Kishida proposes budgeting four trillion yen annually in perpetuity “to protect future generations.”

Even though he mentiones needed constitutional changes later in his speech, here he assures the audience that, at least for these defense upgrades, “No constitutional changes are needed,” an attempt to avoid the controversies of the Abe Shinzō administration.

Diplomacy and Security / 外交・安全保障

Kishida’s comments concerning diplomacy focused on Japan’s bully pulpit opportunities. Later this year in May, Japan will assume the G7 presidency at the upcoming Hiroshima Summit. The country also did a one-month stint in January as president of the UN Security Council. According to the speech, Japan will use such opportunities to “push for world peace and prosperity,” all while “proactively and forcefully” developing a diplomatic framework that protects its national interests, based on “universal values.”

Japan plans to use these platforms to address local, international, and “Global South” concerns. The list of issues includes: food and energy crises brought about by Russian aggression, ongoing worries over nuclear weapons, economic security and political instability in developing nations, human rights violations, climate change, and healthcare worries. And when all of the speeches at the G7 Hiroshima Summit have concluded, the Prime Minister promises to keep the dialogue going at other partner forums, including ASEAN (now in its fiftieth year!), the G20, CPTPP, IPEF, DFFT, plus direct relations with US, Australia, and India to promote “a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Special mention was given to Japan’s bilateral relationship with the United States, “cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy stance.” Kishida sees both military and economic benefits stemming from this association, especially in the pair’s role in monitoring important marine trade routes in the Pacific region. The Prime Minister went on to mention China and the two Koreas, mentioning in each case the history of peace treaties and alliances that should be made firm rather than forgotten. Even with Russia, he insisted that Japan would “adhere to all territorial policies and seek to conclude a peace treaty.” Plus, he is open to meeting face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to resolve outstanding issues.

Most of Kishida’s policy statements dealing with international order are standard political fare: call for world peace, seek Sustainable Development Goals, make a sad face when someone says “climate change.” These are all successive chapters in Japan’s existing diplomatic playbook. The biggest change comes with the doubling of the defense budget. I expect the typical American response would be, “It’s about time.” But with Japan’s semi-official pacifist stance, anything that expands military prospects is a hard sell, both domestically and regionally.

Still, I expected more complaining from Japan’s neighbors, given the complicated history that they have had with this island nation. But it seems that Russia’s attack on Ukraine and a global distaste for China’s quest for regional power have kept South Korea in particular from voicing much in the way of opposition. This time around, it will be the Japanese people who complain the loudest, as they will be the ones who will foot the bill for the military’s new toys.

Tune in next time for a quick overview of Kishida’s policy pronouncements on domestic issues, in particular his call for a “New Capitalism.”

[Image Credits: Cabinet Public Affairs Office]


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