Yoko Kamikawa, who became Japan's first female foreign minister in around two decades in early September, marked her diplomatic debut at the United Nations, but hopes for an improvement in ties with China were dampened during her trip to New York.
Kamikawa, a 70-year-old veteran lawmaker, succeeded Yoshimasa Hayashi in a Cabinet reshuffle as Tokyo's relations with Beijing have frayed over Japan's discharge of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the sea starting Aug. 24.
Many analysts described Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's decision to replace Hayashi, often seen as holding a pro-China stance, with Kamikawa as a "surprise appointment" that would not create a thaw in ties with Beijing.
Kishida, who heads a dovish faction within the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party, appears to have only tapped Kamikawa to signal the transformation of his Cabinet without expecting her to be a diplomat negotiating with China, the analysts said.
"I wonder why" Hayashi, who "had become internationally well-known as foreign minister," was replaced, said economic journalist Hiroko Ogiwara. "I do not have the impression" that Kamikawa is "skilled in diplomacy or in the right position."
Looking ahead, Kishida is set to conduct "diplomacy led by the prime minister's office" to bolster security cooperation with the United States and other democracies, whether or not the Foreign Ministry eases tensions between Japan and China, the analysts said.
While Kamikawa's diplomatic abilities and positions are not widely recognized, she received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and afterward worked as a policy staffer for a U.S. senator.
In Japan, dovish lawmakers have traditionally tried to balance relations with China and the United States, even though the two Asian countries have been at odds over several issues. Kamikawa and Hayashi belong to Kishida's LDP faction.
Following Kamikawa's appointment, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing that the two nations should "manage and control differences," emphasizing the importance of enhancing "dialogue and communication."
But Kamikawa lambasted China's increasing military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region at her first Group of Seven foreign ministerial meeting Monday on the sidelines of the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
With Japan holding the rotating presidency of the grouping of major economies this year, Kamikawa said in the chair's statement that the G-7 members "strongly opposed any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion," singling out China.
A government source close to Kishida said, "I believed Kamikawa was a dovish female politician, but her actual remarks have sounded more hawkish than I thought," adding, "She may not pursue a balanced diplomatic strategy toward China, which Hayashi did."
Jeff Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said Hayashi, who also studied at a Harvard University graduate school, is "considered fairly pro-China in the LDP" and "earned high marks for his diplomacy."
"Replacing him with a fresh face is unlikely to improve bilateral ties" between Japan and China, Kingston said.
Other foreign affairs experts said that regardless of who holds the post of Japan's top diplomat, Kishida has been eager to promote "summit diplomacy" with the leaders of nations that have been challenging the Chinese military threat in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indeed, Kishida said in a press conference after revamping his Cabinet on Sept. 13, "Ministers such as the foreign minister and the defense minister play a significant role in diplomacy, but summit diplomacy also carries huge weight."
"I will continue playing a considerable role in summit diplomacy in the future," said Kishida, who served as foreign minister for about five years through 2017 under the government of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Kishida became prime minister in October 2021.
Stephen Nagy, a professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said, "In general, Prime Minister Kishida has done quite well in terms of his international engagement."
In August, Kishida held a trilateral summit with U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. The meeting took place at the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David near Washington, with the three leaders pitching their rapport.
Kishida, meanwhile, has recently adopted a tougher approach toward China, which has been deepening military collaboration with Russia, after President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 -- a move that has divided the world.
Nagy said such circumstances might provide a tailwind for Kishida, who has been keen to boost his popularity and political base by achieving a victory in the upcoming House of Representatives election before his term as LDP president ends in September 2024.
"We saw that Prime Minister Abe when he returned to power in 2012 took a strong position...vis-a-vis China and this was seen positively by the Japanese electorate," Nagy said.
Abe, who first served as premier for one year from 2006, staged a comeback and became Japan's longest-serving prime minister, remaining in office for more than seven years through 2020.
"Kishida taking an appropriate position towards China while strengthening its relations with the United States and others may be able to play the same political card," Nagy said, but he added, "We have to see what happens" to his Cabinet in the months ahead.