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Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Picture: REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Picture: REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has led a substantial change to Japan’s foreign policy. For decades Japanese foreign policy was conservative, unobtrusive and strictly scripted — faithfully serving the commercial interests of the East Asian economic powerhouse.  

This has changed. Last Monday Kishida was in New Delhi, India, on a state visit, where he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As his foreign ministry officials held a press conference and kept reporters busy, he left in secret, boarded a private charter, and flew to Poland while his official plane flew back to Japan with accompanying reporters. On Tuesday morning Kishida boarded a train in Poland bound for Kiev to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky in person.

There he expressed his support for Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression and paid tribute to the civilians killed in Bucha. In the context of Japanese culture, and given the strict legal and customary requirements a Japanese prime minister must adhere to, this unprecedented secret trip required guts and decisiveness given that it dispensed with protocol and did not even inform Japan beforehand. 

Japan will be hosting the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima in May, so the prime minister was under pressure as the only G7 leader not to have visited Ukraine. We will never know if the timing was intentional, but Kishida’s visit with Zelensky coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where Xi proposed a peace plan to end the Ukraine crisis.

The visit to Ukraine was not the only decisive move Kishida made in March. A week before he held a summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Tokyo, the first visit by a South Korean president in 12 years. Relations between South Korea and its former coloniser had been at a low ebb since the end of World War 2. Japanese media made much of the fact that after the summit the two leaders, together with their wives, had beer together at the Yoshizawa sukiyaki hotpot restaurant in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district.  

Washington was quick to praise her two East Asian allies for patching things up. The implication of a Japan-South Korea rapprochement is that Washington can better co-ordinate its Indo-Pacific strategy, which is to contain China and North Korea and maintain the status quo.  

It is also in Japan’s national interest to patch up relations with South Korea and take a decisive position against Russia. While the Ukraine crisis is in the heart of Europe, at the Russian far east border with Japan there is a long-standing dispute over the Kuril Islands, situated north of Hokkaido and at the southern end of the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula.  

I argue that it is in SA’s national interest to take the Third Way. We should position ourselves in a more nuanced manner between the two camps in the new cold war. The ANC may feel it has the moral high ground by taking a stance against the imperialist West. However, Japan and South Korea are on the West’s side, and like the US and European countries they are taking note of how the ANC is raising the middle finger.   

The Third Way, as demonstrated by Asean and South East Asian countries, avoids unnecessary fallout for SA. Singapore’s former UN representative, Kishore Mahbubani, wrote in Foreign Affairs in February that “the defining geopolitical contest of our time is between China and the US”, but that Southeast Asia is “charting a peaceful and prosperous path through this bipolar era”.

The bloc is setting an example of how to walk the diplomatic tightrope to preserve trust with both China and the US. Pretoria needs to get off its high horse and act according to SA’s best interests. As thing stand neither the East nor the West is particularly impressed.  

• Dr Kuo is adjunct senior lecturer in the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

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