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Beijing eyes fate of pro-China heavyweight as Japan picks leader

LDP Secretary-General Nikai viewed as guardian of bilateral ties

Pictured left to right: LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. (Source photos by AP and Kyodo) 

Tetsushi Takahashi was Nikkei's China bureau chief from April 2017 to March 2021 and the writer for the Beijing Diary column.

TOKYO -- The leadership election for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, set for Sept. 29, has drawn keen interest from observers around the world, including China. But Japan's premiership is not the only thing at stake in the vote. Beijing is also concerned about how much influence the pro-China heavyweight LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai will retain within the party.

Officials from the Communist Party of China's foreign affairs department have often told this reporter this explanation: "Nikai always keeps his promises. He's very special to China."

Nikai is arguably the most trusted Japanese politician in China. He inherited a network of connections in the country first forged by Kakuei Tanaka, who, as prime minister in 1972, normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing. And whenever problems arise between the two countries, Nikai has been the problem solver. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he was a frequent visitor to China, with access to President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders.

When the LDP's foreign affairs division passed a resolution in July 2020 calling for the cancellation of Xi's official visit to Japan, Nikai's famous rebuke is still talked about in China.

"Director who? I don't care if it's the director of the foreign affairs division or whatever division, but this is not something to decide on so frivolously," Nikai said at the time. At his insistence, the wording of the resolution was watered down.

Now Nikai is facing opposition within his own party.

Former policy chief Fumio Kishida, a contender for the top spot, has said that party executives other than the president should serve a maximum of three consecutive one-year terms. That proposal closed the door to a reappointment for Nikai, who has already served as secretary-general for five years.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also explored the possibility of replacing Nikai before announcing his decision not to run for the party presidency. Many younger LDP lawmakers are unhappy with Nikai's dictatorial management of the party, and it is unlikely that he will continue on as secretary-general regardless of who becomes the next party leader.

China, which is locked in a confrontation with the U.S., wants to maintain a reasonably good relationship with Japan. Nikai has been suppressing hard-line views on China within the LDP. His removal would be a blow to Beijing.

"China believes that Japanese politics has once again entered an era in which prime ministers are repeatedly replaced after a short time," said Tomoki Kamo, a professor of Chinese politics at Keio University in Tokyo.

Between 2006 and 2012, Japan had six prime ministers, each of whom lasted in office only about a year. The relationship between China and Japan had to be rebuilt with each new prime minister, and ties fell to unprecedented lows when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands in 2012.

China, which wants to keep relations with Japan healthy to fend off the U.S., does not want to return to that era. However, Chinese leaders have determined that the political turmoil in Japan will continue for some time and are reassessing their strategy toward Tokyo.

At the same time, the twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress is scheduled for next autumn. As China enters its political season, its attention is turning to domestic matters. From the viewpoint of democratic nations, China is taking dangerous, anachronistic steps, such as making "Xi Jinping Thought" compulsory in primary and secondary schools, starting with the new term in September.

Beijing's foreign policy will inevitably become more hardline as domestic politics becomes more fraught. There is no room for compromise with the U.S., which is pressuring China over Taiwan and its alleged human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. China will also likely take a tougher stance toward Japan, which is deepening ties with Washington.

China's massive market is critically important to the Japanese economy, and Japan's business community is concerned about the future of Japan-China relations. However, the notion that politics and the economy are separate will no longer work when it comes to China.

How is Japan going to live with its neighbor China? The upcoming LDP election requires an in-depth discussion.

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