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

Fumio Kishida waves to supporters after winning his party’s leadership election in Tokyo on Wednesday. He is expected to be anointed prime minister after a special session of Japan’s parliament on Monday. (AP)
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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 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, ensures a stable transition of power. After running in an unusually wide-open race that revealed frustrations among younger members of the party, Kishida said he would listen to feedback and work to restore public trust for a “rebirth” of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Fumio Kishida, Japan's former foreign minister, is set to become the country's new prime minister after winning his party's leadership vote on Sept. 29. (Video: Reuters)

“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.

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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. The LDP is expected to win, which would reaffirm Kishida’s ascent 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. That includes an emphasis on the U.S.-Japan alliance, commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and solidifying partnerships with other members of the “Quad” group of like-minded countries to build influence and counter China’s growing clout 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 Corp.

Any marginal difference perceived by Washington will probably be in Kishida’s leadership style compared to his predecessors, Hornung said. Of interest to Washington will be how Japan’s more vocal embrace of Taiwan evolves under Kishida and whether he will take steps to improve relations with South Korea, Hornung said.

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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. If Takaichi is appointed to a high-level position, such as foreign minister, Kishida may embrace a tougher stance on China, Uchiyama said.

Like many influential Japanese politicians, Kishida was born into a political dynastic family. His father and grandfather were both politicians in Japan. As a native and representative of Hiroshima, he is a vocal advocate of nuclear nonproliferation.

The party election is usually a sleepy affair where results are predetermined by the party’s elders. But Wednesday’s contest drew an unusual amount of public interest, despite the fact that the public had no vote in the election.

Kishida’s victory illustrated the power of the party’s elite leaders. Kishida won after a runoff against Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccine chief, whose support among the younger members helped carry him to the runoff round. Both were considered the top two candidates.

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