National / Politics

Change of U.S. secretary of state chief not likely to affect relations with Japan

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

The government on Wednesday reacted calmly to the sudden dismissal of U.S. Secretary of the State Rex Tillerson, saying that the long-standing alliance between the two countries will remain strong.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he believes the firing of Tillerson, who will be replaced by CIA chief Mike Pompeo, will not have a major “negative impact” on the alliance, noting that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump remain in close contact.

The top government spokesman made the remarks during a news conference after Trump dismissed Tillerson on Tuesday due to divisions over policy, including on Iran and North Korea.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who was scheduled to hold talks with Tillerson in Washington later this week, has already expressed his desire to meet with Pompeo.

According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, Kono will visit the United States as scheduled.

Some Japanese experts are optimistic about the latest shake-up of senior U.S. staff, despite the appearance that Japan has been left out of the loop on Trump’s sudden decision to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May.

They said having Pompeo as the U.S. top diplomat will help strengthen the alliance, given that he is seen as having a closer relationship with Trump than Tillerson.

Japan “would want a secretary of state to be influential to the president,” said Yasushi Watanabe, a professor and American studies expert at Keio University. “But rumors have swirled for about six months that the Trump-Tillerson relationship was in terrible shape.”

With Pompeo taking the helm of the State Department, Watanabe expects that Washington will be able to beef up “negotiating power.”

As Abe’s government has been one of the biggest supporters of Trump’s policy of piling “maximum pressure” on North Korea, the prime minister “must be appreciating the personnel change,” he said.

The professor said that even ahead of his firing, it was likely that the Japanese government was already taking into account the possibility of Tillerson’s dismissal, although Abe might have been surprised by the exact timing.

For Japan, “Pompeo would be a better secretary of state, since he has gotten along well with Trump,” he said.

Kazuhiro Maeshima, a professor of international relations at Sophia University, echoed this sentiment.

“It’s much better for Japan to have someone … who shares similar views with President Trump” than someone who has friction with him, like Tillerson.

However, Maeshima said Japanese officials may face some difficulties in immediately building from scratch a good relationship with Pompeo after working to craft close bonds with Tillerson.

Kono told reporters Wednesday that he “regretted” that Tillerson was fired as the two had established a trusting relationship.