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Japan election

Japan PM hopeful Kono calls for regular summit with China

Candidates debate Taiwan security and relations with South and North Korea

Taro Kono, left, Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda take part in a debate held by the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on September 18.   © (Photo by Rie Ishi)

TOKYO -- Japan's future policies on energy and China took center stage in a debate Saturday as the four candidates in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party presidential race exchanged views on the challenges facing the country. 

Taro Kono, the liberal and outspoken vaccine minister; Fumio Kishida, considered an establishment candidate; Sanae Takaichi, a hard-line conservative and former party policy chief; and Seiko Noda, a former internal affairs minister; participated in the debate organized by the Japan National Press Club.

The triennial election, which will put the winner one rubber stamp away from succeeding Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, will be held on Sept. 29. 

On foreign policy, two of the candidates stressed the need for dialogue with China. 

Kono said Japan-China summits should be held regularly but that the prime minister's attendance at the Beijing Winter Olympics, less than five months away, should be decided later.

Kishida echoed the sentiment. "Dialogue between leaders and senior officials is the basis of everything," he said. "Dialogue must continue."

On a possible emergency in Taiwan, Kishida said Japan would "respond in accordance with the provisions of security-related laws to protect people's lives and livelihoods," explaining that Japan will use the framework of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a security alliance with the U.S., Australia and India.

Kono said he would like to see the Quad partners work with other blocs. "In addition to the Japan-U.S. Alliance, I would like the Quad and Europe to turn their attention to the Pacific," he said.

Takaichi argued that an emergency in or near Taiwan is likely and that Japan should prepare for such a contingency. "What Japan can do, especially militarily, is limited," she said, suggesting Japan wield influence and power through its security alliance with the U.S.

Noda stressed the importance of summit diplomacy. "The time has come," she said, "for top leaders to engage in solid diplomacy."

Fraying Japan-South Korea ties were another hot topic. Kishida said the 2015 Japan-South Korea Accord, which he signed in his capacity as foreign minister, remains significant. "The world praised it highly," he said, "and Japan carried out all the agreements. The current situation is that Japan continues to approach South Korea."

Issues related to Japan's wartime history in South Korea flared up again in 2018 when South Korea's Supreme Court ruled Japanese companies must pay reparations to wartime laborers.

Japan argues that a treaty between the two nations settled the matter decades ago.

"The issue of whether to abide by international law and treaties is being questioned," Kishida said. "The ball is in South Korea's court."

Kono said South Korea must settle its own judicial issues. "It is a fundamental principle to have the South Korean government take proper measures," he said.

Earlier this year, a Seoul district court dismissed a compensation lawsuit filed by 85 Koreans forced to work for 16 Japanese companies during World War II. Two months earlier the same court dismissed a compensation lawsuit filed by 20 former South Korean "comfort women" against the Japanese government.

Japan reacted to the 2018 ruling by restricting exports to South Korea of key components.

Regarding the export curbs, Kono argued that "in principle, Japan and South Korea should discuss and do what is necessary, but not what is unnecessary."

As for North Korea, Kono said he hopes to hold a summit and press Kim Jong Un on his country's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. "During my time as foreign minister," he said, "I had several exchanges with North Korea's foreign minister. It's a problem that can't be solved without the leaders of the other side."

Kono also promised to enhance efforts to deter North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs through the Japan-U.S. alliance. "It is important to increase deterrence against North Korea and convey messages to them," he said.

Kishida seemed to indicate he would broach direct talks with Pyongyang. "First and foremost," he said, "it is time to review the [U.S. President Joe] Biden administration's North Korea policy and consider how Japan can act while communicating with each other."

On energy policy, restarting nuclear reactors emerged as a focal point. Kono, who is known for opposing nuclear power, said he would aim to reduce energy consumption and increase the share of renewables.

But, he said, "currently, the only way to make up for the [energy] shortfall is to restart nuclear power plants."

He also said social pressure to restart nuclear power has hindered the development of renewable energy. All of Japan's nuclear plants were shut down in 2011 after the three meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture, triggered by a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March of that year.

Kono, however, did not clarify how long it would be before a shift to renewables leads to a phaseout of nuclear energy.

"Having widely dispersed power generation capacity such as renewable energy is an advantage for stable supply in times of emergency," he said. Referring to an earthquake in Hokkaido that caused a massive blackout in 2018, Kono said big power plants cannot necessarily assure stable flows of electricity.

"An increasing number of countries have low renewable energy costs," he said. "Japan will eventually be like that."

Kishida asked Kono for his views on the nuclear fuel cycle, which reuses reprocessed nuclear fuel. Kono, who opposes recycling fuel, said the biggest problem with nuclear power generation is the unsolved disposal problem.

Takaichi said research and development costs should be earmarked for nuclear reactors. "This will lead to the stability of Japanese industry and stable energy supply," she argued.

Noda stressed the importance of stable energy supplies and said she intends to promote geothermal power generation.

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