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Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, a contender in a fast-approaching LDP presidential election that will effectively pick the country’s next leader, unveiled a raft of diplomatic and foreign policy initiatives Monday — including measures that would tackle China’s growing assertiveness near Japan as well as its alleged human rights abuses.

Kishida, taking a page from U.S. President Joe Biden’s multilateral approach to dealing with China, called for Tokyo to work even more closely with Washington and other “like-minded” democracies in confronting Beijing.

The country’s longest-serving top diplomat, who was once regarded as the heir apparent to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, characterized Japan as being on the “front lines” of the Sino-U.S. standoff. Still, he dismissed concerns of the two sides slipping into a new Cold War, calling the situations with China and the former Soviet Union vastly different.

Speaking about the almost daily visits by Chinese government vessels into waters near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands — which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu — Kishida stressed that it was “important” to re-examine and perhaps revise laws governing interoperability between the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Coast Guard.

“We must strive to ensure maritime safety through measures such as bolstering coast guard capabilities and allowing them to smoothly work with the Self-Defense Forces,” said Kishida, one of three candidates who have officially thrown their hats into the ring to replace outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, following the shock announcement earlier this month that he is stepping down as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Kishida said that when it comes to Japan’s relationship with China, he recognizes the importance of maintaining a good bilateral economic relationship in particular, but that Tokyo should defend its principles.

“China is one of our neighbors and there are many exchanges at the people-to-people level of both countries,” he said. “China is our No. 1 trading partner and Japan is China’s No. 2 trading partner. But at the same time, we’re looking at the situation in the Senkaku Islands, developments in the East China Sea and South China Seas.

“Given these circumstances, Japan also needs to say what it must say in regards to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO

He also touched on China’s Belt and Road initiative, calling it a well-thought out national strategy to which Japan and other countries need to respond.

On North Korea, Kishida — a one-time chairman of the LDP’s top policymaking body, the Policy Affairs Research Council — also did not rule out Japan acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases amid an increasingly severe security environment.

“Acquiring this is one option,” he said. “In order to protect citizens’ lives and livelihoods, I’d definitely like to discuss this further.”

Asked about whether he would meet with leader Kim Jong Un, either bilaterally or within a multilateral framework, Kishida said he would not completely rule out a meeting but that he would want to gauge the sentiment in Washington first.

“I would like to confirm the U.S. position toward North Korea under President Biden. I think it’s necessary to understand the U.S.-North Korea relationship and their policies and then think about the total picture, taking into consideration what role Japan might play. But I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of a meeting with Kim,” he said.

Kishida also said he would not necessarily push to keep defense spending below 1% of gross domestic product if more spending was needed to protect Japanese citizens.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of the Liberal Democratic Party attends a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Monday. | AFP-JIJI
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of the Liberal Democratic Party attends a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Monday. | AFP-JIJI

In perhaps his clearest signal that the China challenge remains high on his agenda, Kishida also said he would create a post of special adviser to the prime minister on human rights issues if elected.

The special adviser would deal with alleged human rights abuses against China’s Muslim Uyghur minority in its far-western Xinjiang region, as well as its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, he said. The post could also cover Japan’s own refugee program, which has garnered widespread criticism in recent years for its low acceptance numbers.

Kishida is expected to face tough competition for the LDP presidency. In a weekend opinion poll on possible successors to Suga, the minister in charge of the country’s vaccine rollout, Taro Kono, emerged as the favored candidate.

According to the poll by the Nikkei daily, Kono topped the list, favored by 31% of LDP supporters, while Kishida was backed by 17%.

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