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Japan after Abe

Japan PM front-runner Suga vows to not back down from China

Chief cabinet secretary stresses alliance with US in debate with other candidates

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga speaks at a debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo. (Photo by Yo Inoue)

TOKYO -- Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga promised on Saturday to stand his ground with Beijing, saying he will not be afraid to express Japan's claims to China should he become prime minister.

"If there are assertions that should be made, I will make those assertions at high-level talks," the front-runner said about Japan-Sino relations during a debate with his two rivals, Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, in the race for the top leadership spot.

The event at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo comes ahead of Monday's election to decide the next president of the Liberal Democratic Party. Since the LDP-led coalition controls both houses of parliament, which elects the prime minister, the next leader of the party will succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced his resignation last month over health reasons.

While Japan's relationship with China improved under Abe, the country's longest-serving prime minister, there are still disputes between the countries. The Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu. On Wednesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono called China a "security threat" and warned Beijing might try to expand its maritime militarization to the East China Sea.

Suga's two rivals gave their own takes on relations with China.

"We must never let channels for dialogue close," said Kishida, a former foreign minister, adding that Japan must be smart in controlling the dialogue.

Ishiba, a former defense minister, said Japan's role was to help realize a world in which the U.S. and China can cooperate.

Responding to a claim that his diplomatic skills are untested, Suga said he "was involved in all decisions that have been made as a nation" during his seven years and eight months serving as Abe's lieutenant.

Citing his experience in diplomacy, he said he sat in on most telephone conferences between the leaders of Japan and the U.S.

While praising Abe's style -- in which the prime minister's office took the lead in foreign relations instead of bureaucrats at the foreign ministry -- Suga said: "I will conduct my own style of diplomacy."

Diplomacy "will be conducted by the government as a whole" along with the foreign minister, he said, noting that he will be receiving reports from the foreign ministry. Suga also said he would consult Abe on foreign affairs.

"The important thing is to have solid ties with Asian nations by having the Japan-U.S. alliance as the foundation," he said.

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