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Japan’s Suga leans on Abe’s brother and holdovers to handle China

  • September 19, 2020
  • , Nikkei Asian Review , 7:25 a.m.
  • English Press

JUNNOSUKE KOBARA, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has signaled with his cabinet picks that he will follow predecessor Shinzo Abe’s path on foreign policy, including an approach to China that balances economic ties with a tough response to perceived provocations.


After a planned call between Suga and U.S. President Donald Trump as early as Sunday, Shigeru Kitamura, Suga’s national security adviser, will visit Washington next week to meet with officials including counterpart Robert O’Brien.


Kitamura was close to Abe, serving as an executive secretary during Abe’s first stint as prime minister in the mid-2000s and was named to his current post last year before being kept on by Suga.


Serving over seven years as chief cabinet secretary under Abe, Suga is a known quantity in domestic affairs but has not made as much of an impression as his old boss on the diplomatic front. A recent Washington Post piece said the new prime minister is “not known as a foreign policy expert and lacks Abe’s stature on the world stage.”


The reappointment of Kitamura and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, and his choice of Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, as defense minister, seem intended to allay these doubts.

Kishi was appointed as a deputy foreign minister twice under Abe but had not previously held a cabinet-level post.


Kishi told reporters Friday that China’s “rapid military buildup is a serious concern” while also acknowledging the importance of fostering trust between defense officials on both sides.

His appointment has irked China, as Kishi is known for his support for Taiwan. He chairs a cross-party group of lawmakers that seeks to promote exchanges with the island. And in 2015, he served as a guide for then-opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen, now president, during a trip to Japan.


China hopes that “the Japanese side will abide by the ‘One China’ principle and refrain from any form of official exchanges with the Taiwan region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters Wednesday when asked about Kishi.


The dynamics surrounding China are tricky to navigate. Tensions between China and the U.S. — Japan’s closest ally — are escalating over Beijing’s military buildup in the South China Sea, and international concern is growing over the crackdown in Hong Kong. Tokyo is also grappling with incursions by Chinese vessels around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu.


Suga has indicated that, like Abe, he will take a firm stance toward Beijing on such issues. In the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership race, he said he would “resolve issues one by one while asserting what needs to be asserted.”


Some observers suggest that this tough language and Suga’s conservative-leaning roster of diplomatic and security officials may be intended to balance out the prime minister’s own views on the importance of maintaining Tokyo’s economic relationship with Beijing.


Boosting foreign tourism was one of Suga’s areas of focus as chief cabinet secretary, and he is expected to revive this effort once the coronavirus pandemic subsides. If he does, then good relations with China, as the largest source of overseas visitors to the country, will be essential.


How well Suga can handle one-on-one meetings with other world leaders remains to be seen. His predecessor built a warm relationship with Trump, keeping the Japan-U.S. alliance on firm footing.


An early test of the new administration’s dynamic with the U.S. will be upcoming negotiations over Japan’s share of the cost of hosting American troops as Washington pressures Tokyo to pay more. With the agreement slated to expire in March, the two sides hope to wrap up talks by year-end.



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