TOKYO (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): This year will be one that severely tests Japan's diplomatic mettle, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (pic) said in a policy speech on Monday (Jan 17), in a nod to the delicate balancing act he faces between the United States and China.
Kishida's speech at the start of the ordinary Diet session comes ahead of his talks with US President Joe Biden on Friday in a virtual summit where China and North Korea are likely to be high on the agenda.
"Japan's diplomacy must be based on 'realism for a new era'," he said during the 40-minute address, citing the need to emphasise such values as human rights and the rule of law, while proactively addressing global challenges such as climate change and healthcare, and protecting Japan'snational interests.
"We will assert what we should assert and urge China to act responsibly," he said. "But at the same time, we will hold dialogue and cooperate on common issues, and aim to build a constructive and stable relationship."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties between Asia's two largest economic superpowers.
Yet the milestone is overshadowed by mounting fears in Japan over an assertive China, and the prospect of a Taiwan contingency where Japan's south-western island chain is likely to be the main battle theatre.
Kishida said the country will continue to fortify its defences on the islands, known as Nansei in Japanese, that stretch about 1,200km south-west from Cape Sata - the southernmost tip of the mainland - to Yonaguni, which is just 110km from Taiwan.
He also condemned North Korea's repeated missile launches and marked improvement in technology. Monday's launch was Pyongyang's fourth one this year, in an unusually rapid sequence of tests.
Kishida vowed to look at all options, including the so-called preemptive strike capability on enemy bases in case of an imminent threat.
The bulk of his speech was, however, domestic as he sought to allay fears over Covid-19 and tepid growth with an eye on an Upper House election in July.
"I hear the voices of the people that they're already at their limit of curbs," he said. "But we must acknowledge that the invisible enemy of Covid-19 is far more formidable than expected."
He reiterated his lodestar of always preparing for the worst. While most Omicron cases appear to have mild or no symptoms, he feared a scenario where severe cases rise in absolute numbers - even if small proportionally - and overwhelm hospitals.
Kishida laid out such plans as to expand free Covid-19 testing, secure more doses of oral medicines, as well as to set up large-scale inoculation sites operated by the Self-Defence Forces.
He also said that the delivery of booster jabs - originally slated for eight months from the second shot for adults - will be brought forward by up to two months.
Japan has double-dosed 78.6 per cent of its population, but just 1.1 per cent of its people had received their booster shots as of Monday, Cabinet Office data shows.
The PM also fleshed out his plan to build a "new style of Japanese capitalism" with redistributive policies, noting how the erstwhile excessive market reliance has exacerbated inequality and poverty.
Beyond promoting wage growth and offering tax breaks, his government will invest in "new engines of growth" such as digitalisation, green technology, smart agriculture, and other forms of new innovation.
He also vowed to invest more in its people - noting how Japan was "far behind as compared to other countries" on this front - through such ways as re-education, improving skills, encouraging side businesses, and reducing the wage gap between men and women.
Kishida also apologised for a tampering scandal in which construction data was found to have been systematically jacked up over eight years, as he vowed to restore trust and protect the integrity of government statistics.