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Sanae Takaichi, at the time Japan’s internal affairs minister, attends a news conference in 2019. Photo: Reuters

Japan’s ‘Iron Lady’ Sanae Takaichi focuses on Taiwan, US in appeal to China hawks before LDP vote

  • Takaichi is the most hawkish candidate in the ruling party’s election next week, the winner of which will be Japan’s next prime minister
  • She is looking to burnish her credentials with conservatives vocal over China’s attempts at regional control, but analysts say she faces an uphill battle
Sanae Takaichi – the most hawkish candidate running to lead Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party in next week’s election, the winner of which will be the country’s next prime minister – has attempted to burnish her credentials with like-minded conservatives by speaking with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

During their 30-minute conversation on Monday afternoon, former internal affairs minister Takaichi, 60, emphasised that she hoped to enhance security ties between Taipei and Tokyo, and step up business exchanges as well.

Takaichi later tweeted that the discussions were “positive”, while Tsai expressed hope following their talks that self-ruled Taiwan and Japan would be able to cooperate more closely in the future, adding that mutual assistance between the two governments was critical to regional stability.

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Key issues in the immediate future included regional security, economic development, and the global supply chain, Tsai said.

Lagging in the four-person LDP race with only days to go, Takaichi was appealing to conservatives in the party who were becoming more vocal over what they perceived as China’s increasingly heavy-handed attempts to exert control over the region, said Go Ito, a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Meiji University.
“Takaichi is the most hawkish of the candidates and she is effectively taking over [the policies of former prime minister Shinzo Abe on Taiwan],” he said. “But she is facing something of an uphill battle, in part because she is a woman and there are still quite a few conservatives who are not ready for a female party leader and prime minister. So this is why she is trying to appeal to that group, by reaching out to Taiwan.”


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According to Ito, this is an approach that is at odds with her rivals – vaccinations minister Taro Kono, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, and acting LDP secretary general Seiko Noda – who have focused their campaigns on defeating Covid-19, rebuilding the economy, and getting the lives of ordinary people back on track.

Kono and Kishida have both, at times, been outspoken about China and the challenges an increasingly aggressive Beijing poses to Japan, but for this election they are both focusing their attentions closer to home.

The party leadership election takes place on September 29, with the winner also taking over from Yoshihide Suga as prime minister. The new national leader will be confirmed during an extraordinary session of the Diet on October 4, paving the way for a general election in early November.

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The latest indications are that Kono is the most popular candidate with rank-and-file members of the party, more than 1 million of whom will vote in the leadership election. Former premier Abe, however, retains immense influence behind the scenes and has thrown his personal support behind Takaichi.

Should she be unsuccessful in the first round of voting, which will whittle the candidates down to two, Abe and his faction are expected to coalesce behind Kishida in order to keep the more centrist Kono out of power.

Takaichi’s conversation with Tsai comes just days after she stated that as prime minister, she would give the green light for the United States to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Japan to counter the growing threat posed by China and North Korea.
Vaccinations minister Taro Kono is seen as the most popular candidate among rank-and-file members of LDP. Photo: AP

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said Takaichi had been forced to be outspoken on Taiwan and security issues because she needed the attention.

“She is on the fringe in terms of how Japan has been dealing with the Taiwan issue so far, and there is no desire within the political or bureaucratic worlds here to change that position and advocate [Taiwanese] independence,” he said.

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“Takaichi is completely out of step with accepted thinking and this just shows how little she understands of Japan-China relations and just how Taiwan fits into that. Comments like these will not sit well with the vast majority of the party or the broader public.”

China’s state media has remained silent on Takaichi’s latest comments, although the nationalistic Global Times tabloid has in recent weeks described her as having an “aggressive stance” and being an “Abe disciple”.

Meiji University’s Ito said that going by recent conversations with colleagues and counterparts at universities and think tanks in China, the widely held belief was that a woman described as Japan’s “Iron Lady” would be the “worst outcome” for Beijing.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘Iron Lady’ Takaichi appeals to China hawks ahead of vote