Japan’s ruling party elects centrist Fumio Kishida as new prime minister

Former foreign minister considered a moderate but adopted tough line against China in election campaign

 

Japan’s ruling party has selected a former foreign minister from its liberal wing to lead it into a general election this autumn.

The Liberal Democratic Party’s majority in the Japanese parliament, the Diet, means Fumio Kishida (64) will become the country’s 100th prime minister next week, replacing Yoshihide Suga.

The unpopular Mr Suga resigned after just a year, partly to take responsibility for perceived missteps during the coronavirus pandemic and for pushing ahead with the Tokyo Olympics in the face of public opposition.

Mr Kishida beat the clear public favourite in the LDP leadership election, vaccine minister Taro Kono (58), a US-educated iconoclast with more than two million Twitter followers.

Two female candidates, Sanae Takaichi, a hawkish protégé of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, and feminist lawmaker Seiko Noda, failed to make it past the first-round party vote.

Widely considered a moderate and a political dove, Mr Kishida spouted talons while positioning himself as a candidate with a tougher line against China, following criticism from the LDP’s right-wing. Mr Kishida said Beijing was trying to export “its authoritarian system”.

Japan’s latest defence white paper sounded the latest in a series of increasingly shrill alarms about China’s growing military heft and its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conflict

China now spends about four times more than Japan on its military. Mr Kishida is among many in the government who fear a conflict between China and America over Taiwan into which Japan could be drawn.

“Taiwan is at the front line of the standoff between the U.S. and China,” he said during the campaign. “Looking at the situation with Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, I have a strong feeling that the Taiwan Strait will be the next big problem.”

Mr Kishida has pledged to continue talking to Beijing, Japan’s biggest trading partner, while defending his nation’s interests. “I think Japan also needs to say what it needs to in regards to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” he said.

Defence minister Nobuo Kishi angered China in June when he warned that Japan was carefully eyeing the situation in Taiwan. “The peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan and we are closely monitoring ties between China and Taiwan, as well as Chinese military activity,” he said.

Mr Kishida is a scion of a wealthy political family: his grandfather and father were both politicians. He spent some of his childhood in the US before returning to Japan and working at a bank.

After his election on Wednesday, Mr Kishida promised an economic stimulus package as part of his plan to build a “party for the people”. During the LDP campaign, he surprised some by pitching himself as a compassionate conservative, saying he “rejected the neoliberal economic policies” in vogue for over a decade.

Mr Kishida will lead the party in a general election that must be held on or before November 28th.