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Interview

Countering China is top priority for Japan PM contender Kishida

Ex-foreign minister stresses Indo-Pacific partnership to stand against authoritarianism

Fumio Kishida, a former Japanese foreign minister and a contender to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, speaks to Nikkei on Sept. 2. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Dealing with China would be a top priority in his government, Fumio Kishida, a contender to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, told Nikkei, expressing "deep alarm" at Beijing's aggressive behavior on the diplomatic and economic fronts.

To protect "basic values such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, we will work with those that share the same values, such as the U.S., Europe, India and Australia, to stand against authoritarian systems," Kishida said in an recent interview.

The former Liberal Democratic Party policy chief spoke to Nikkei on Thursday, the day before Suga announced his departure. He is one of the four likely contenders in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential race this month.

Kishida's discussion of security and foreign policy reflected more than four and a half years of experience as foreign minister under Suga's immediate predecessor Shinzo Abe.

Economic security is high on his agenda. As Washington and Beijing compete for technological dominance, Japan, the U.S., Taiwan and South Korea are scrambling to coordinate to secure supply chains for strategically important goods such as semiconductors.

Citing the idea of "economic statecraft," Kishida argued that "we need to think about national security from a variety of perspectives, not just force."

"I will protect our nation's geopolitical interests with a focus on the economy," he said.

On defense, Kishida emphasized the need for the capabilities to strike enemy missile bases to prevent to an imminent attack. "Even if missile defense systems block a first attack," having capabilities to attack enemy bases could "protect people's lives if a second or more shots are being launched," he said.

"Missile technology has been evolving rapidly, and I want to hold a thorough discussion based on that reality about defending the public's lives and livelihoods," he said.

Abe had intended to make a decision on acquiring such attack capabilities by the end of 2020, but Suga has put off the discussion.

The government has so far taken the position that such attacks are allowed under Japan's pacifist constitution if there is no other option, but there is a deep-rooted view among constitutional scholars that this would depart from Japan's defense-only security policy stipulated in the charter's Article 9.

Kishida's economic plans center on a modern version of the 1960 "income-doubling plan" that helped Japan grow into a major economic power.

"Inequality has expanded further because of the coronavirus," he said, adding that "as our economy grows, we need to turn more attention to inequality and distribute the wealth."

"At companies, should shareholders take all the fruits of their growth? " asked Kishida. "As proponents of stakeholder capitalism argue, they need to be distributed appropriately." he said, adding "raising worker incomes and compensation" should be a top priority.

Noting the burden of education costs on families, Kishida called for introducing a system like Australia's Higher Education Contribution Scheme, with income-based loan repayment after graduation.

Kishida asserted that he would "stay the course" on the Suga government's target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To this end, he argued, "we need to realistically assess" whether to build, expand or replace nuclear power plants.

"This is a test of our political responsibility," he said.

Kishida also touched on his proposal to limit top party posts to three consecutive one-year terms, calling it "a big issue that we need to implement."

"Even the party leader has a term limit" already, he said. "It's important to maintain systems and rules that keep fresh air circulating when it comes to appointments."

Kishida stressed his intent to actively tap younger and less prominent party members. "I'll show that the LDP is a party that can renew itself and that has youthful energy," he said.

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