Fumio Kishida set to become Japan’s new prime minister after winning party vote

TOKYO — Fumio Kishida, Japan’s former foreign minister, who is set to become the country’s new prime minister after winning his party’s leadership vote on Wednesday, has vowed to counter China’s growing influence and redistribute the nation’s wealth to close the income gap.

Kishida, 64, will become prime minister on Monday following a special parliamentary session, replacing Yoshihide Suga, who decided to step down after just one year in power amid plummeting popularity over his handling of Japan’s coronavirus response.

The selection of Kishida, who served as foreign minister for many years under former prime minister Shinzo Abe, ensures a stable transition of power. Kishida, who ran in an open race which caused frustrations among younger party members, said that he will listen to the feedback received and try to rebuild public trust to allow for the “rebirth” Liberal Democratic Party.

“I heard that many were saying that their voices weren’t heard by the government and that they couldn’t trust the government,” Kishida said Wednesday.

Among Kishida’s banner platforms is decreasing the income gap, through redistributing wealth and reining in the market-oriented policies that were the core of Abe’s economic agenda.

As he succeeds Suga, Kishida faces challenges navigating the country’s pandemic response and jump-starting its stagnant economic recovery.

But his first order of business will be preparing to fight a general election before the end of November. It is likely that the LDP will win which will reaffirm Kishida’s ascendance as prime minister.

“As the face of the upcoming election, the key will be how much Kishida can reach voters,” said Yu Uchiyama, political science professor at the University of Tokyo.

Kishida is expected to continue the foreign policy approach that Suga and Abe had championed. This includes a strong emphasis on U.S.-Japan’s alliance and commitment to an “Open and Free Indo-Pacific.” It also strengthens partnerships with members of “Quad,” a group of similar-minded countries, to counter China’s increasing influence in Asia.

“From a security standpoint, diplomatic standpoint, I don’t think we’re going to see much change,” said Jeffrey Hornung, an expert in Japanese security and foreign policy at the Washington-based RAND Corporation.

Any marginal difference perceived by Washington likely will be in Kishida’s leadership style compared to his predecessors, Hornung said. Hornung stated that Washington’s attention will likely be on how Japan’s vocal support for Taiwan under Kishida, and whether or not he takes steps to improve relations between South Korea and Japan.

As foreign minister, Kishida played a critical role in negotiating the landmark 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea to resolve their dispute over the issue of wartime sex slaves, sometimes referred to as “comfort women.” The agreement has since fallen apart and the relationship between the two countries is once again at a low point.

During the campaign, Kishida said dealing with China would be a top priority, and that he senses “deep alarm” about Beijing’s diplomatic and economic aggression.

Kishida won in the runoff round Wednesday with the help of Sanae Takaichi, a hawkish candidate whom Abe had endorsed. Uchiyama stated that Kishida could adopt a more aggressive stance towards China if Takaichi was appointed to high-ranking positions, like foreign minister.

Like many influential Japanese politicians, Kishida was born into a political dynastic family. Both his grandfather and father were Japanese politicians. He is an indigenous Hiroshima representative and a strong advocate for nuclear nonproliferation.

The party election is usually a sleepy affair where results are predetermined by the party’s elders. The contest on Wednesday attracted a surprising amount of interest, even though the public did not vote.

Kishida’s victory illustrated the power of the party’s elite leaders. After a runoff against TaroKono, Japan’s vaccine chief who had the support of the younger members, Kishida was victorious. They were both considered to be the best two candidates.

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