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Foreign minister Motegi “gets the job done” and waits for his opportunity

  • August 13, 2021
  • , Nikkei , p. 4
  • JMH Translation
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Motegi Toshimitsu, who had just returned from a tour of several Central American and Caribbean nations, visited the office of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s office inside the Diet building on July 29.

 

Motegi and Abe discussed the nations’ responses to the Taiwan issue and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept.

 

Motegi mentioned the Suga administration’s successes, such as the Japan-U.S. summit and the Group of Seven (G7) summit. He commented that “references in the meetings’ statements to Taiwan with China in mind are increasing.”

 

Motegi has adjusted his diplomatic strategy in consultation with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aso Taro, telling people around him that he and Aso “share a realistic sense of crisis over Japan’s security.”

 

In the days leading up to the 2020 Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election, Abe and Aso considered Motegi as a possible candidate along with former LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Kishida Fumio. When Motegi was appointed foreign minister, Abe told him that “the position will be good preparation for when you meet with foreign ‘leaders’ in the future.”

 

Motegi was not always on good terms with Abe. When Abe ran for the second time in the 2012 LDP presidential election, Motegi was a leading member of then-LDP secretary-general Ishihara Nobuteru’s camp. Ishihara was rumored to be the strongest candidate for the LDP presidency at the time.

 

Motegi holds frequent meetings with Aso arranged by his ally and Takeshita faction (Heisei Kenkyukai) member Yamaguchi Taimei. The meetings started around the spring of 2020. This was the also the period when Kishida’s popularity plummeted due to the confusion over the amount of COVID-19 relief payments.

 

Abe and Aso, otherwise known as “2A,” have held Motegi in high regard since the launch of the second Abe administration, for being “a person who gets the job done.”

 

In fall of 2017, negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP11), which took place in Danang, Vietnam, almost fell through at the final stage because Canada put its interests first.

 

Motegi met with the Canadian international minister, and talked with his counterpart in English at a hotel room until an agreement was reached.

 

When former U.S. President Trump pressed Abe on a Japan-U.S. trade agreement, Motegi negotiated and concluded the agreement in one year.

 

In his first meeting with then-U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer, Motegi discussed one-on-one with Lighthizer for two hours and quickly found common ground.

 

Motegi saw that the U.S. wanted to produce an outcome quickly before the presidential election. Instead of compromising, Motegi was successful in having the U.S. retract its request to increase auto tariffs, a request which Japan could not accept.

 

Lighthizer reflected on the negotiations in 2020 to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) official, saying that Motegi “was a tough negotiator, an admirable adversary.”

 

Motegi’s negotiation skills and ability to engage one-on-one in English has become his strength.

 

Motegi is known for his swift comprehension during preparations for Diet interpellations. Motegi immediately understands what is being explained to him and instructs others to prepare simple and brief supporting documents. Many MOFA officials say that “briefings have become shorter.”

 

Abe has mentioned Motegi as a “post-Suga” candidate. Motegi does not seem very enthusiastic about running in the LDP presidential race because his base in the Takeshita faction, for which he serves as acting chairperson, is not solid.

 

On July 8, Takeshita faction head Takeshita Wataru, announced in writing that he would not run in the next Lower House election. Lower House members of the Takeshita faction have floated the idea of Motegi as the next faction head, but Upper House faction members are cautious of the idea.

 

The divide between Lower and Upper House faction members became apparent in the 2018 LDP presidential race. Takeshita and many Upper House members of his faction supported former LDP secretary-general Ishiba Shigeru. Motegi and Takeshita faction members in the Lower House supported Abe. Motegi gained Abe’s trust but created a rift between himself and Upper House faction members.

 

If 2A supports Suga in the next LDP presidential race, Motegi will wait for his opportunity while gaining experience in the Suga administration. He is striving to solidify his base so he can be a candidate for Suga’s successor.

 

Motegi does not come from a family of politicians and does not have a ready-made base of supporters, status, or wealth, yet he has been elected from his district nine consecutive times.

 

Motegi, who was a consultant before becoming a politician, had a reputation for being “sharp and brusque.” There are those in MOFA who now say that Motegi has “softened since he served as state minister in 2002-2003.”

 

“Diplomacy that combines tolerance and strength” is Motegi’s guiding principle for both Japanese diplomacy and his own political posture. (Abridged)

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