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International relations

Japan taps elite diplomats as envoys to vital Indo-Pacific region

High-profile names sent to Indonesia and Australia reflect democratic push

Kenji Kanasugi, left, now Japan's ambassador to Indonesia, worked closely with U.S. counterpart Sung Kim back when they served as their countries' representatives on North Korean affairs. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

JAKARTA -- With the Indo-Pacific emerging as a top diplomatic priority for Japan, the country has selected its latest crop of ambassadors to the region from the highest rungs of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga aims to strengthen the partnership among democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific in response to China's growing influence, an initiative begun under his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Tokyo is selecting new envoys who have not only impressive credentials but also a track record in working with foreign counterparts.

Veteran diplomat Kenji Kanasugi became Japan's ambassador to Indonesia effective Tuesday. He is the first top envoy here in 30 years who formerly served as senior deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, one of the top administrative positions in Japan's foreign ministry.

Kanasugi worked closely with Sung Kim -- the former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines who began serving in that role to Indonesia in late October -- when both of them represented their countries on North Korean affairs.

Shingo Yamagami became the new ambassador to Australia on Tuesday. As a former director-general of the foreign ministry's Economic Affairs Bureau, he advocated for the creation of a data distribution scheme led by Japan, the U.S. and Europe, as well as other policies in response to China. He will tap his experience in Australia, which has faced growing tensions with Beijing since the spread of the coronavirus.

Shingo Yamagami, Japan's new ambassador to Australia, seen speaking to reporters as director-general of the foreign ministry's Economic Affairs Bureau in Geneva in 2019.

These high-profile appointments signal that Japan values its relations with Indo-Pacific countries, said Teuku Rezasyah, a professor at Indonesia's Padjadjaran University.

The trend began last year when Japan named Masahiro Mikami, formerly director-general of the International Legal Affairs Bureau, as ambassador to Cambodia. Kazuhiko Koshikawa, who has served as director-general of the International Cooperation Bureau and as deputy minister at the Minister's Secretariat, became ambassador to the Philippines earlier this year. Neither of their predecessors had experience leading entire bureaus of the foreign ministry.

By selecting former bureau chiefs who until recently were at the forefront of Japan's diplomacy, Tokyo also hopes to foster greater continuity in its relations with key countries.

Satoshi Suzuki, who became ambassador to India in October 2019, held working-level talks with fellow "Quad" security dialogue members India, the U.S. and Australia as head of Japan's Foreign Policy Bureau. Kazuya Nashida was in charge of official development aid to Southeast Asian nations before becoming ambassador to Thailand.

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