Can Japan’s new Foreign Minister improve ties with China?

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/7 19:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his new Cabinet on August 3, with six people joining for the first time and two female cabinet members.

In this reshuffle, the two main positions, chief cabinet secretary and finance minister, did not change, but Seiko Noda and Taro Kono have respectively taken over as minister for internal affairs and communications and foreign minister. Both are critical of the Abe regime, from which we can conclude that Abe is aiming at turning the tide of public opinion against a previous cabinet made up of his "personal friends."

A cabinet reshuffle is not an unusual move in Japanese politics. It not only refreshes the cabinet's overall image, but also can revive popular support for a government. Public support for Abe's cabinet plummeted after the Kake Gakuen school corruption scandal and a coverup about the dangers faced by Japanese troops in peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, the direct reason for this reshuffle.

According to a poll released in mid-July by Jiji news agency, Abe's cabinet support rate has fallen to 29.9 percent, the lowest since the establishment of the second Abe government in 2012.

The appointment of Kono, who has been critical about the Abe administration on nuclear power, as the foreign minister has received considerable public attention. Kono once studied at Georgetown University and worked as an intern in some American politicians' offices. His connections in American politics and fluent English will help communicate with the US and promote the deepening of Japan-US relations in the future.

Abe may not be aiming to deepen Japan-US relations through appointing Kono as foreign minister, but rather to improve relations between Japan, China and South Korea. Looking back, Abe's diplomacy from 2012 till now - including hosting the G7 summit, facilitating Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima, and Abe's historic visit to Pearl Harbor - shows his focus on Europe and the US, while his diplomacy with neighboring countries like China, South Korea and Russia has not made any substantive progress. This suggests Abe will seek some sort of breakthrough in diplomacy with neighboring countries.

Taro Kono is the eldest son of Yohei Kono, former speaker of the House of Representatives and former foreign minister. For this reason, he has a special advantage in developing diplomatic relations with China and South Korea. On August 4, 1993, Yohei Kono issued the famous Kono Statement, offering introspection and an apology to the "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels. This statement not only won him respect from the people of China and South Korea, but made him become one of the few politicians who can have direct dialogue with senior Chinese politicians.

The current cabinet support rate is relatively low, so through the appointment of Taro Kono as the new foreign minister, Abe is likely to promote the development of relations with China and South Korea with Taro Kono's influence and connections in the two countries. In particular, Abe is eager for the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit to be held in Tokyo as early as possible, as well as official visits to China and South Korea next year.

Finally, Japan's diplomacy has taken the Japan-US alliance as its starting point since the end of WWII, so the new foreign minister will also follow this diplomatic tradition, and the free diplomatic space for Kono may be limited. Although Kono can expand communication between Japan, China and South Korea by leaning on his father's influence and connections, how much freedom he has to choose his own way on foreign affairs and whether he can persuade Abe on some controversial topics are still unknown. After all, the prime minister is the final decision-maker on foreign affairs. At the same time, the Abe administration is capricious in its relations with China, thus whether Abe is seeking to promote China-Japan relations or is just creating a smoke screen to make it through this crisis deserves further attention.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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