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Japan's former foreign minister touts diplomatic experience in leadership race

TOKYO (Reuters) - Former Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida, a candidate for leadership of the ruling party to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said on Wednesday that frank talks are needed with the United States over Japan’s share of its defence burden.

Fumio Kishida, policy chief of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and former foreign minister, who has declared his candidacy for the party leadership election to choose the successor of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaks during an interview with Reuters at LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan September 2, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Kishida, 63, long assumed to be Abe’s preferred successor to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has fared poorly in opinion polls but has sought to distinguish himself from other candidates by emphasising the diplomatic experience gained during his 2012-2017 stint as foreign minister.

The low-key Hiroshima native lags Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga for support within the LDP. Former defence secretary Shigeru Ishiba has also thrown his hat into the ring.

Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, said on Friday he would step down because of poor health, triggering a leadership contest within his party. The winner is all but guaranteed the premiership because of the LDP’s majority in the lower house of parliament.

The United States, Japan’s main ally, has been pressuring it to take on a greater share of the burden of its defence and pay more to host U.S. troops.

Kishida told Reuters in an interview that while each nation had its own view on the issue, that should not be allowed to hurt ties.

“We should not lose trust over who pays for what,” he said.

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“We may have different points of view but we must strive to reach an appropriate conclusion through frank discussions and maintain our relationship.”

Rising tension in East Asia because of China’s growing strength and its confrontation with the United States over human rights, trade and security, has placed Japan in a difficult position - between its top security partner and the giant neighbour with which it has built deep economic ties.

Japan’s relations with China had improved ahead of a planned visit by President Xi Jinping, but the trip was postponed because of the novel coronavirus.

Some LDP members want the visit cancelled altogether over China’s clampdown on Hong Kong and its push to assert disputed claims in the East China Sea.

Kishida acknowledged U.S. concerns but indicated that Japan might not do U.S. bidding if pressed to take sides.

“Even as the US-China standoff worsens, Japan is a neighbour of China and we must keep that in mind, as well our strong economic ties,” he said.

“Our primary relationship is with the United States, but we will strongly stand up against any Chinese efforts to unilaterally change things in the region, such as in the East China Sea.”

Reiterating his stance that fighting the coronavirus, which has brought Japan’s biggest economic slump in history, must go hand in hand with restarting the economy, he said that bold fiscal measures would be needed for some time.

Eventually, however, these will no longer work, and the world will move to change.

“As an exit strategy, there will come a time when both fiscal and monetary policy will be normalised, and Japan must make sure not to fall behind,” he said.

Reporting by Mayu Yoshida, Elaine Lies and Takaya Yamaguchi, writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim