By MARI YAMAGUCHI Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — In his first policy speech, new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised Friday to strengthen the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in case of another resurgence and revive its battered economy while bolstering defenses against threats from China and North Korea.
Kishida also spoke on Friday by telephone with Chinese President Xi Jinping and raised concerns about China’s escalating activities in disputed maritime territories and human rights problems in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, he said.
Tasked with the crucial mission of rallying public support for the governing party ahead of national elections expected Oct. 31, Kishida promised to pursue politics of “trust and empathy.”
He was elected by parliament and sworn in Monday as Japan’s 100th prime minister, succeeding Yoshihide Suga, who left after only a year in office. Suga’s perceived high-handed approach in dealing with the coronavirus and insistence on holding the Tokyo Olympics despite rising cases angered the public and hurt the governing Liberal Democrats.
“I will devote my body and soul to overcome the national crisis together with the people to pioneer a new era so we can pass a bountiful Japan to the next generation,” Kishida said.
He promised to be more attentive to public concerns and needs, and prepare virus measures based on “a worst-case scenario.” That includes taking advantage of a drop in infections to improve crisis management before the weather turns cold, approving drugs for treatment of COVID-19 by the end of December and the digitalization of vaccine certificates as Japan gradually expands social and economic activities, Kishida said.
A former moderate who recently turned hawk on security issues, he said Japan should increase its preparedness for growing regional threats. He said the security environment has become more severe and he will revise Japan’s national security and defense strategy to bolster its missile defense capabilities and naval defense.
“I’m determined to defend our land, territorial seas and air space, and the people’s lives and assets, no matter what,” Kishida said.
The Japan-U.S. alliance remains the “lynchpin” of Japanese diplomatic and security policies, he said, vowing to further elevate the partnership, which “also serves as the foundation of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the entire world.”
Kishida said establishing a stable relationship with China is important not only for the two countries but also for the region and the international community. Still, Japan will “say what needs to be said” about China’s assertive activities in the region, while cooperating with other like-minded democracies, he said.
China has become bolder in pursuing its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, where it constructed several islands and turned them into military installations, and near the Japanese-controlled East China Sea island of Senkaku, which China also claims. Beijing also has increased military activities around self-ruled Taiwan, which it claims as part of its territory.
Kishida told reporters after his talk with Xi later Friday that he raised China’s increased activity around Senkaku and human rights problems in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and proposed a dialogue on resolving the issues.
He and Xi agreed to promote economic and people’s exchanges, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.
In a separate phone call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, the two leaders agreed to strengthen defense cooperation and promote a vision of a “free and open Indo Pacific” with other democracies as a counterbalance to China. Kishida held talks with U.S. and Australian leaders earlier this week.
Kishida and Modi together opposed any “unilateral attempts to change the status quo and economic coercion” and agreed to step up partnerships in defense and other areas, the Foreign Ministry said.
In his speech, Kishida said North Korea’s missile and nuclear development cannot be allowed, but Japan seeks to normalize diplomatic ties with North Korea by resolving their “unfortunate (wartime) past,” and the decades-old issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North, the ministry said.
He repeated that he is ready to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough.
Kishida said he will seek to promote growth with investment in cutting-edge research and development and promoting digitalization to modernize the government bureaucracy, services and industries, while encouraging companies to hike wages. He said he also wants to step up government support for education and living costs. Many experts, however, are skeptical whether wage increases are possible.
Kishida said he also hopes to close divisions caused by the pandemic’s worsening of gaps between the rich and the poor.