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FOCUS: Suga’s diplomatic skills to be tested in U.S. visit

Tokyo, May 9 (Jiji Press)–Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who has emerged as a candidate for prime minister, will see his diplomatic skills tested in his four-day U.S. visit from Thursday.

In the United States, Suga is set to hold talks with Vice President Mike Pence and other senior officials of the administration of President Donald Trump.

Through the meetings, Suga is expected to confirm bilateral cooperation to resolve the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals and reduce Okinawa Prefecture’s burden of hosting many U.S. military bases.

Suga has not shown any intention to run in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s next leadership election to pick the successor to President Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister.

But Suga is now considered a major post-Abe candidate as his name recognition has increased as the official who announced the new era name, Reiwa, at a widely televised news conference April 1.

“I want to reaffirm the bilateral cooperation toward achieving an early resolution of the abduction issue and confirm the steady implementation of U.S. base realignments in Japan, which directly causes a reduction in Okinawa’s base-related burden,” Suga said Wednesday.

It is unusual for a chief cabinet secretary, who is in charge of crisis control, to make an overseas visit.

This is Suga’s second trip abroad as chief cabinet secretary. The previous occasion took him to the U.S. territory of Guam in October 2015 in connection with a plan to relocate some 4,000 U.S. Marines in Okinawa to the western Pacific island.

The main purpose of Suga’s U.S. visit this time is to attend a symposium that the Japanese government will hold at the U.N. Headquarters in New York to seek cooperation over the abduction issue.

Since taking up a concurrent post as minister in charge of the abduction issue in October last year, he has indicated his eagerness to attend the symposium, as his predecessors in the post did.

In Washington, he will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to seek support for Japan’s policy of realizing a Japan-North Korea summit without preconditions that was announced by Abe on Monday night.

Among LDP members, Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and former Secretary-General Makoto Koga have declared that Suga is a post-Abe candidate.

Suga has shown a strong ability to tackle domestic issues, exercising the initiative to pave the way for mobile phone fee cuts and the creation of visa categories to accept more foreign workers.

Speculation is growing that his unusual overseas trip may signal his eagerness to run in the next LDP race.

While saying that he is flattered to be regarded as a post-Abe candidate, Suga himself has repeatedly denied the possibility of seeking the LDP presidency.

“Expectations for me will fade away soon,” Suga has told people close to him.

Currently, he is not scheduled to meet with Trump during the U.S. visit.

But if a meeting between Suga and Trump is arranged, that would be taken as a sign that the U.S. government attaches importance to Suga.

In such a case, expectations for Suga are likely to intensify, pundits said.

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