Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe picked two veteran lawmakers with friendly ties to China for top party posts yesterday in an apparent signal of hope for a thaw in chilly ties with Beijing and a summit with President Xi Jinping.
The change in executives in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was twinned with a cabinet reshuffle in which Abe gave the health and welfare portfolio to a reform-minded lawmaker, kept core ministers and boosted the number of women in an effort to polish his image.
Abe's line-up faces a number of challenges, including how to repair ties with China that have been frayed by rows over territory and Japan's wartime past, and whether to go ahead with a sales tax rise next year despite signs the economy is faltering.
"A positive economic cycle is kicking off," Abe said. "We're only halfway through in reforms and we need to deal with new challenges. I reshuffled my cabinet so that we can tackle these challenges boldly and vigorously. The biggest challenge now is ... to revive the regions of Japan."
In a bid for party unity, the hawkish Abe tapped outgoing Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, his predecessor as LDP leader, for the key party post of secretary-general, the LDP's de facto election campaign chief.
Tanigaki, 69, is from a moderate wing of the LDP that favours better ties with China. He was also an architect of a plan to raise the sales tax in two stages to curb Japan's huge public debt. The second stage is now in doubt due to a string of gloomy economic data.
Veteran lawmaker Toshihiro Nikai, 75, who also has close ties with China, was appointed to a second top party post. Outgoing administrative reform minister Tomomi Inada, 55, a close ally of Abe, became LDP policy chief.
"He is sending a strong message to China that he wants to improve ties. Not only Tanigaki but Nikai have good ties with China," said political analyst Atsuo Ito.
Abe has signalled that he hopes to meet Xi at an Asia-Pacific leaders gathering in Beijing in November.
"Japan and China both have responsibility for international peace and prosperity. It is vital to develop a forward-looking, cooperative relationship on common issues confronting international society," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
Former deputy defence minister Akinori Eto, part of a group of lawmakers advocating visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, takes over from moderate conservative Itsunori Onodera as defence minister. He also assumes a new post responsible for national security reform as Abe pushes ahead with efforts to ease the limits of Japan's pacifist constitution on its military.