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With economic and security tensions with the United States escalating, China is expecting Japan’s next prime minister to make conciliatory gestures to the communist-led government, diplomatic sources have said.

Suga, front-runner in the race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, may secure the role by winning the ruling party’s presidential election with the backing of its powerful Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, who is known for his close relations with China.

Given that outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made efforts to improve ties with Beijing, China hopes Suga, who has worked as chief Cabinet secretary since Abe returned to power in December 2012, will follow suit, according to the sources.

“We don’t clearly know what kind of foreign policy Suga will actually want to develop after he becomes prime minister, but he may not be able to run counter to Nikai’s intention to get along with China,” a Japanese diplomatic source said.

“Suga is likely to adopt a well-balanced diplomatic strategy that won’t hurt Japan’s relations with its close ally, the United States, and the Chinese Communist Party, as Abe has done for the past several years,” the source added.

Beijing has also voiced willingness to maintain relatively amicable ties with Tokyo, at a time when it has been at odds with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump over many issues including trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

An editorial late last month in The Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the Communist Party, stated, “China must win the support of countries like Japan” as it is “faced with strategic containment from the U.S.”

The newspaper added, “Within the framework of the U.S.-Japan alliance, keeping a strategic balance between China and the U.S. fits Japan’s interests. As for China, it should try to create a positive atmosphere for closer ties between the two societies.”

The Japanese source said, “This can be translated as a request to Suga from the Communist Party.”

The Liberal Democratic Party is scheduled to hold its presidential election next Monday to choose a successor for the 65-year-old Abe. Suga, 71, his longtime right-hand man, is seemingly on course to secure about 70 percent of votes from fellow lawmakers.

A few days after Abe announced he would resign due to health problems, the faction led by 81-year-old veteran politician Nikai, the LDP’s No. 2, expressed support for Suga, paving the way for his expected victory in the upcoming presidential race.

Nikai won his first seat in the House of Representatives in 1983. He said he learned politics under late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who played an active role in realizing the 1972 normalization of diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing.

Toshihiro Nikai (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before talks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in April 2019. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Toshihiro Nikai (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before talks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in April 2019. | POOL / VIA KYODO

In the early 2010s, China and Japan were mired in territorial spats over the Senkaku Islands. The group of uninhabited islets, called Diaoyu in China, is administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.

The dispute intensified after Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara proposed buying the islets of Uotsuri, Kitakojima and Minamikojima to clarify Japan’s ownership, prompting the government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to bring the Senkakus under state control in September 2012.

The controversial move sparked anti-Japanese protests across China. At that time, a large number of Chinese people burned Japanese flags in opposition to Tokyo’s nationalization of the islands.

Ties between the two Asian powers deteriorated to the worst level in decades, but Abe’s government extended an olive branch to China by making use of Nikai’s influence on bilateral relations.

In 2015, Nikai brought a Japanese delegation of around 3,000 people to an event at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People that was aimed at promoting friendly Sino-Japanese cooperation, during which President Xi Jinping appeared as a surprise guest.

After taking the post of LDP secretary general in 2016, Nikai attended the first international forum of Beijing’s Belt and Road cross-border infrastructure initiative in 2017. Since then, he has often visited China and talked with high-ranking Chinese officials.

When LDP lawmakers urged Abe earlier this year to withdraw an invitation to Xi to visit Japan as a state guest, in the wake of the tightening of China’s grip on Hong Kong, Nikai instructed them to soften the proposal in consideration of ties with Beijing.

In a report released in July, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, singled out Nikai as the head of the “LDP’s pro-China group.”

Zhu Jianrong, a professor at Toyo Gakuen University in Tokyo, said in a TV program that China was “concerned” about whether Japan’s next prime minister would be able to respond to bilateral matters “with a strong support base” like Abe.

A source familiar with Beijing’s thinking, however, said, “The Communist Party apparently welcomes the possibility of Suga becoming Japan’s next prime minister. China is confident that it can interact well with a politician who could comply with Nikai’s wishes.”

“It is also obvious that Suga will inherit the current government’s diplomatic policy as he has served as one of the closest aides to Abe, leading China to believe that Japan will not take action that would harm bilateral relations,” the source added.

In his policies set out Saturday for the LDP election campaign, Suga pledged to “build stable ties with neighboring nations such as China,” while keeping the Japan-U.S. alliance as the foundation of Tokyo’s diplomacy and security, which is in line with Abe’s stance.

Meanwhile, a Japanese government source in Tokyo has said that Suga plans to appoint Hideo Tarumi, a senior Foreign Ministry official regarded as a “hardliner” against Beijing, as the new ambassador to China.

Tarumi, who was minister responsible for political affairs at the Japanese Embassy in China before returning to Tokyo in 2013, is suspected by Beijing of involvement in spying to collect information about Chinese authorities, the source said.

“By tapping Tarumi as the next ambassador to China, Suga may have sent the United States a message that Japan will keep an appropriate distance from China,” the source said.

Tarumi, a “China School” diplomat who underwent Chinese language training with a specific focus on advancing relations with the emerging power, is also considered to be close to Nikai.

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