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Abe retains foreign affairs team in cabinet reshuffle; Motegi, Seko to play prominent roles

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has retained all his cabinet members involved with diplomacy with the U.S. and Russia in his cabinet reshuffle on Oct. 2. Minister of Economic and Fiscal Policy and Economic Revitalization Toshimitsu Motegi is expected to play an increasing role in diplomacy with the U.S., in which trade policy is the issue, while Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Hiroshige Seko will be playing a more prominent role in diplomacy with Russia, which will affect the Northern Territories issue directly. It is now apparent that Abe has put in place a setup for the ministers to be the trailblazers, with the Prime Minister stepping in in the end.


On Oct. 3, the day after the reshuffle, Abe summoned National Security Secretariat chief Shotaro Yachi, Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba, Cabinet Intelligence Director Shigeru Kitamura, and others to the Kantei to discuss and prepare for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Japan on Oct. 6. Pompeo will be meeting with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong Un.


Abe is keen on engaging in direct negotiations with Kim for a solution to the abduction issue. His foreign policy adviser Yachi, who is also well-versed in Chinese and Russian affairs, is tasked with gathering information for this purpose. In the reshuffle, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is trusted by Abe, was made to take charge also of the abduction issue, in an effort to further reinforce the foreign affairs team in the Kantei.


Abe has moved diplomacy forward so far through the personal relationships of trust that he has built with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, it is difficult to achieve breakthroughs in trade and territorial issues only through summit diplomacy. Working level discussions and trailblazers are necessary.


Motegi is the key official for diplomacy with the U.S. Abe’s agreement with Trump at their summit meeting on Sept. 26 to start negotiations on a trade agreement on goods (TAG) was the result of tough negotiations between Motegi and USTR Robert Lighthizer.


Trump praised Motegi at his meeting with Abe. He said: “Japan has a clever negotiator.”


The Japan-U.S. Economic Dialogue led by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence is another framework for discussing bilateral trade issues. However, Trump has been making statements linking trade and security, asserting that, “We are suffering from an enormous trade deficit with Japan and we still spend a lot of money giving Japan military assistance.” Talks between Motegi and Lighthizer might be able to separate the two issues.


Meanwhile, Seko, together with Foreign Minister Taro Kono, is serving as a trailblazer in diplomacy with Russia. He remains in charge of economic cooperation with Russia after the reshuffle. He will coordinate for the implementation of the economic cooperation plans Abe proposed to Putin because confidence building through economic cooperation is necessary for a solution to the Northern Territories issue.


Putin proposed in September the signing of a peace treaty within this year without preconditions. This proposal seriously deviates from Japan’s position on concluding a peace treaty after resolving the issue of sovereignty over the Northern Islands. The two countries have agreed on implementing a “special system” that will not undermine the legal positions of both sides for the joint economic activities to be undertaken on the islands.


It is difficult to separate the territorial issue from security. Abe attaches great importance to the information sources cultivated by Yachi, who set up the Japan-Russia subcabinet dialogue. Yachi is scheduled to meet with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, in Tokyo on Oct. 4 to discuss territorial and security issues.

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