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Japanese PM Kishida appoints pro-China ally as foreign minister

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Fumio Kishida has appointed a pro-China heavyweight to the post of foreign minister as the Japanese prime minister aims to strengthen the country’s national and economic security following his election victory last month.

After his re-election on Wednesday, Kishida also unveiled plans to distribute ¥100,000 ($880) in cash to households, students and temporary workers hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic as part of a huge economic package he will compile by the end of next week.

The selection of Yoshimasa Hayashi, a former defence and education minister, as foreign minister reflects Kishida’s push to strengthen ties with the US while taking on a more assertive role in regional security to address the growing threat from China, say analysts.

The Harvard-educated, English-speaking 60-year-old is seen as a potential future prime minister and heads an association of parliamentarians that promotes relations with China. But experts believe he will adopt a nuanced strategy towards Beijing and Taiwan, without disrupting ties with the Biden administration.

“He does have a friendlier stance towards China but he has a precise understanding of the Biden administration’s China strategy and it’s unlikely he will pursue a policy that will create tensions with the US,” said Atsuo Ito, a former staffer for the ruling Liberal Democratic party and now a political analyst.

Kishida also named Gen Nakatani, former defence minister, as a special adviser on human rights in an apparent bid to address China’s alleged human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority.

“In terms of our relations with China and Russia, we will assert what needs to be asserted and take a firm diplomatic stance,” Kishida said.

At a news conference on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called on the Kishida administration to “properly manage differences and jointly foster China-Japan relations”.

Ito said Hayashi’s appointment was also an indication that Kishida was more confident about his political standing, giving him the freedom to appoint allies into important positions. Hayashi is part of the prime minister’s own political faction, an organised group of parliamentarians who band together and trade their backing for commitments on policy and ministerial jobs.

When Kishida formed his first cabinet in early October after succeeding Yoshihide Suga as LDP leader and prime minister, he rewarded the factions that had supported him during the party leadership race. That resulted in important posts for allies of Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, including the appointment of Akira Amari, the architect of Japan’s new economic security policy, as the party’s secretary-general.

After Amari became the first person in his position to lose his seat in the Diet’s lower house, Kishida replaced him with Toshimitsu Motegi, who was serving as foreign minister.

Kishida now faces challenges to sustain the momentum ahead of the upper house election next summer.

After maintaining a comfortable majority in the lower house, Kishida hopes to push ahead with a stimulus to reboot the pandemic-hit economy, as well as tax measures for companies to boost wages.

But some economists have questioned the need to distribute ¥100,000 in cash and vouchers to children under the age of 18, even though Kishida has sought to deflect the criticism by imposing an income limit.

Another task will be to ensure Japan’s competitiveness in a world of increasing technology nationalism, which has pushed Kishida to create a new role of economic security minister.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest contract chipmaker, has confirmed plans to partner with Sony to build a $7bn fabrication plant in Japan.

Kishida has said the government would include support for TSMC’s plant in its economic package, stressing the need to build a supply chain resilient enough to survive disruptions such as the Covid-19 pandemic. One person familiar with the plan said the Japanese government would offer several billion dollars worth of subsidies to support the project.

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