Kishida struggles to achieve diplomatic visibility as ommicron hinders travel

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is struggling to deliver on his policy of “new era realistic diplomacy,” hampered by the global spread of omicron, the highly transmissible COVID-19 strain.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced the prime minister to be patient on the diplomatic front, according to sources.

It remains to be seen whether Kishida will be able to take advantage of in-person diplomatic events, which are highly attractive to the public, ahead of this summer’s election to the House of Councilors, the sources added.

“I would like to step up personal diplomacy at the summit,” Kishida said at his New Year’s press conference on Jan. 4. But at the same time, Kishida announced a decision to abandon plans to visit the United States or Australia with this year’s regular diet session starting next Monday.

Kishida held an online meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on January 6, rather than visiting the country for an in-person bilateral summit.

Face-to-face meetings could make a positive impression and boost the popularity of Kishida’s government ahead of the Senate elections, which are expected to be Japan’s biggest political event this year.

“We have no choice but to take advantage of online opportunities for now,” a senior State Department official said disappointed in the wake of the cancellation of Kishida’s plans to visit the United States or Australia.

Since taking office in early October 2021, Kishida has made only one trip abroad – to Scotland in November for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26. On that occasion, he held brief talks with US President Joe Biden.

While a visit to the US is expected to remain the top priority on Kishida’s diplomatic agenda, Tokyo and Washington have been unable to work on a specific schedule, due in part to rising COVID-19 cases in the United States.

While some Japanese government officials are putting forward the idea that Kishida will visit the United States during Japan’s three-day weekend from March 19 to 21, the prime minister will most likely remain engaged in parliamentary talks until the approval of the state’s fiscal 2022 budget coming in late March.

“Some countries are likely to resume personal diplomacy once the coronavirus crisis is over, but we don’t know what the situation will be in Japan then,” said a source.

Kishida apparently wants to deliver diplomatic feats through upcoming events such as a summit, possibly in Japan, of the Quad cadre, which also includes the United States, Australia and India; potential overseas visits during Japan’s Golden Week holiday period, between late April and early May, and a summit of the Group of Seven Major Industrial Countries in Germany in June.

During the January 6 online meeting, Kishida told Morrison that he looks forward to meeting the Australian leader in person in the near future. But Kishida will have to worry about the course of the COVID-19 situation at home and abroad for a while, experts say.

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