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As Japan Seeks New Leader, Analysts Say China Policy Unlikely to Change

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds a news conference at his office in Tokyo, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Japan announced Thursday it is extending a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and 18 other areas until the end of September as…
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds a news conference at his office in Tokyo, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Japan announced Thursday it is extending a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and 18 other areas until the end of September as…

As Japan eyes contenders to replace the unpopular Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who effectively announced his resignation by not running for reelection as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, analysts expect the island nation will not change its China policy under new leadership.

Analysts say that whoever wins the party leadership role will likely continue the overall foreign policy trend maintained by Suga and his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who resigned as prime minister on Sept. 16, 2020, citing health reasons. Suga in his brief tenure pushed back against China's increasingly assertive behavior, and in April, he was the first foreign leader President Joe Biden welcomed in person at the White House. Among the topics covered was “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” according to Kyodo News.

“Since World War II, Japan has always maintained the belief that only through gaining the trust and support of the United States can Japan maximize its national interests,” Chen Wen-chia, an advisor at the Taipei-based Taiwan Japan Academy and a professor at Kainan University in Taiwan, told VOA Mandarin.

“Regardless of who wins the September 29 election, the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign policy is unlikely to change,” said Izuru Makihara, a professor at the prestigious University of Tokyo focusing on postwar Japanese political history. “They will align with the U.S., view Beijing as a rival, and support Taiwan.”

Campaigning for the leadership position begins Sept. 17, and votes will be tallied on Sept. 29. Once a new party leader is elected, the parliament, or Diet, will be called into session to elect Japan’s next prime minister. Because the LDP holds a majority in the Diet, the winner of the party election is expected to become prime minister. Whoever that is must call a general election by Nov. 28. The LDP has retained power in Japan for all but three years since 1955.

Low ratings

Suga’s announcement came as his ratings dipped to an all-time low of 26%, largely the result of popular disappointment over his handling of COVID-19, the pandemic’s economic impact, and the Olympic Games.

“Suga lacks experience in foreign affairs and insisted on hosting the Olympics while COVID-19 cases were on the rise, so he basically had no time to develop any kind of meaningful foreign policies during his one-year term,” Katsuhiko Eguchi, president of Japanese think tank PHP Institute and a former LDP senator, told VOA Mandarin.

Eguchi said that a lack of diplomatic achievements and failure to develop effective pandemic countermeasures contributed to Suga’s low ratings and factored into his decision against seeking reelection.

However, Suga’s government did voice concern over Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and abuses of the Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s far western Xinjiang region.

“Many Chinese officials have been disappointed with Suga,” a Beijing-based diplomat told Kyodo News in a Sept. 4 report. “Their attention has already turned to who will become Japan’s next prime minister and how the new government will handle the Taiwan issue.”

Top contenders

Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida declared his candidacy on Aug. 31.

In a Sept. 4 interview with Nikkei Asia, Kishida, who also served briefly as defense minister, said that dealing with China would be a top priority in his government, expressing “deep alarm” at Beijing’s aggressive behaviors on multiple fronts.

“Kishida has more than four years of experience as the minister of foreign affairs in the Abe Cabinet. From his track record, we expect him continue to adopt a tough attitude toward China, from national defense matters to economic competition,” Makihara told VOA Mandarin by phone.

Taro Kono, Japan’s popular coronavirus vaccination minister, announced his candidacy on Sept. 10. A Georgetown University graduate, he served as foreign minister and defense minister in Abe’s Cabinet. Although seen as something of a maverick in Japan’s staid political world, the Twitter-adept Kono comes from an LDP dynasty.

Kono leads in the polls with 31.9% support in a nationwide telephone survey conducted on Sept. 4 and 5, according to Japan’s Kyodo News.

A onetime mentee of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Kono is an effective communicator, according to Eguchi.

“I’ve met him in person on multiple occasions. He’s tech-savvy, great at social media, humorous and speaks good English, so he’s very popular in the U.S. political circles,” Eguchi said. “On the foreign policy front, I think he’s going to continue his tough stance towards China as he did during his time as foreign minister and defense minister under Abe, and that’s consistent with the current U.S. policy.”

Kono tweets in both English and Japanese on two separate Twitter accounts. His Japanese account has 2.3 million followers, surpassing Suga’s 471,000 followers.

Former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said on Sept. 3 that he was ready to serve as prime minister if the conditions and environment are right.

He has criticized Beijing for interfering with Hong Kong’s autonomy, according to Lexology. That stance appealed to voters in 2020, when a Kyodo News poll found that 23.6% of Japan’s voters approved of Ishida as a future prime minister. Abe, prime minister at the time, placed second with a 14.2% rating.

According to Eguchi, Ishiba is a big advocate for Taiwan.

“Seven or eight years ago, when the U.S.-China relations and Sino-Japan relations were not as tense as today, I arranged for Ishiba to meet with Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui,” Eguchi told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview. Lee was Taiwan’s first democratically elected president and he championed Taiwan’s separate identity from China.

“Ishiba later told me that Lee had given him a lot of good advice in regard to Japan’s relations with Taiwan. So although we don’t see him publicly supporting Taiwan, he’s actually very pro-Taiwan,” Eguchi said.

Change unlikely

Makihara of the University of Tokyo said that no matter who becomes Japan’s next prime minister, it is unlikely that the robust relationship with Taiwan will change. “This is not only the consensus of the leading Liberal Democratic Party, but also the consensus of the Japanese society,” he said, adding that in the bigger context of U.S.-China competition, Japan will continue to align with Washington.

“Taro Kono has said China is a threat, Kishida has said Japan needs to protect freedom, democracy and human rights, and Ishiba was very tough on China when he served as defense minister,” he told VOA Mandarin. “So there’s no question that Japan will keep its alliance with the U.S.”

Kainan University’s Chen said while the chances of improving Sino-Japan relations are very slim, the two sides will likely refrain from engaging in any major conflict.

“Suga's successor will continue the Japan-U.S. alliance and fight against China. It also conforms to the anti-China sentiment among the Japanese public and the Liberal Democratic Party,” he said. “However, Japan is still dependent on China’s trade. I think Tokyo will maintain a flexible policy towards China: work with Beijing on trade and align itself with the U.S. on defense matters.”

Some information for this report came from Reuters.