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International relations

Kishida includes Quad, China in first calls; South Korea on hold

New Japanese leader wants Biden to be his first in-person meeting

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida intends to speak with leaders of around 10 nations during his first month in office.   © AP

TOKYO -- The Quad security alliance took center stage in new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's first phone calls with foreign leaders, leaving South Korea in the cold.

Kishida spoke first with U.S. President Joe Biden, followed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, both on Oct. 5. He talked with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday before participating later that day in a teleconference with all three of them, bringing together the leaders of the Quad nations.

Biden is the first leader Kishida would like to meet face to face, the prime minister said on a TV Tokyo program Monday.

"The alliance with the U.S. is the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy," Kishida said. "When considering foreign policy, building a relationship based on confidence with the U.S. is fundamental."

Kishida also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday. The Xi call occurred prior to the conversation with Modi, avoiding the appearance of Kishida consulting with the entire Quad before speaking to the Chinese leader.

But the Japanese prime minister has yet to call South Korean President Moon Jae-in, underscoring the deep deterioration in relations between the two countries.

Kishida will speak with leaders of more than 10 countries over roughly a month. Those nations contacted sooner are thought to be a higher priority, so the prime minister's office and Japan's Foreign Ministry consider carefully the order in which the calls are placed. But time differences and the schedules of the other side are factors as well.

Kishida's first week of calls prioritized fellow members of the Quad, also called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Japan, the U.S., Australia and India have joined hands as a counterweight against China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

"I've held phone meetings with all countries in the Quad," Kishida said Friday. "We were able to start head-of-state diplomacy in an exceedingly good fashion."

Late last month, then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the other three Quad leaders met in person for the first time at a summit in Washington.

Kishida sees the Quad as a way to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific governed by the rule of law. China has intensified intimidating activity against Taiwan and in the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing. For Tokyo, cooperation with like-minded nations has become essential.

The Foreign Ministry sought to have the first round of telephone talks include the European Union and the U.K., both of which have increased their involvement in the Indo-Pacific region. Scheduling conflicts prevented those conversations, according to the ministry.

Relations between Japan and South Korea are at their worst in the postwar era, with no sign of a thaw as Seoul has offered no plan to resolve compensation cases involving Japanese companies over wartime Korean labor.

Kishida's office and the Foreign Ministry decided against an early call to Seoul, but Tokyo is working to arrange talks for Tuesday or later.

Japan's lower house parliamentary election set for Oct. 31 also plays a role. Many of the conservative voters who form a big part of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's base wonder whether Kishida will adopt a relatively pliant attitude toward China and South Korea. The LDP political faction headed by Kishida traditionally prioritizes relations with neighboring countries, and it takes a moderate stance on foreign policy.

Suga started speaking by phone with world leaders on his fourth day as prime minister. He began with Washington and Canberra, then conversed with leaders of Germany, the EU, the U.K. and others in Europe. Suga then spoke with leaders of China, South Korea and India.

During Suga's time, China came four days earlier than Russia. This time, Beijing followed Moscow. Yet Kishida's call with Xi occurred at what Japan considered the earliest feasible time.

China's weeklong National Day holiday ended Thursday, and most in Japan's Foreign Ministry expected Kishida's call with Xi to occur Monday or later. But Beijing apparently preferred an earlier date for the conversation.

Suga was the first Japanese prime minister to have a Chinese president congratulate him on his new post by phone. That Xi also did so with Kishida indicates that the Chinese leader looks to maintain relations with Japan for the time being as tensions with the U.S. persist.

Xi said Sino-Japanese relations are "facing both opportunities and challenges," according to China's Foreign Ministry. The president also said the two countries should "properly handle major sensitive issues," such as those dealing with history and Taiwan.

When it came to South Korea, Suga and Moon had a phone conversation four days after the Japanese leader spoke with his counterparts in the U.S. and Australia. Suga and Moon exchanged pleasantries during that talk.

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