Japanese prime ministerial hopeful Yoshihide Suga said Saturday that he lacks the kind of diplomatic skills that outgoing leader Shinzo Abe has, including Abe's personal friendship with President Donald Trump, and that he will need his assistance if he assumes the top job.
Abe in late August announced his intention to step down as prime minister due to health problems. He has led Japan since he returned to power in December 2012 for a second stint as prime minister.
Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary, is expected to win Monday's party election and then be endorsed in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday because of the majority held by the ruling bloc.
Abe has traveled to 80 overseas destinations during his tenure, bringing stability and consistency to Japanese diplomacy and raising the country's profile in the international community, experts say. He was noted especially for developing a personal friendship with Trump.
"Prime Minister Abe's leadership diplomacy was truly amazing. I don't think I can match that," Suga said as he joined the two other contenders at a public debate. Former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida are also in the race.
"I think there is a diplomatic stance that would fit me and I will stick to my own style, while also seeking assistance from the Foreign Ministry. And of course I will consult with [Abe]," Suga said.
Suga said his top priorities are fighting the coronavirus and turning around an economy battered by the pandemic. When asked about his policies on the economy, women's empowerment and other areas, he repeatedly noted achievements under the Abe-led government.
Suga served as a policy coordinator and adviser to Abe, the point man behind the centralised power of the Prime Minister's Office and its influence over bureaucrats in implementing policies. The son of a strawberry farmer in northern Japan and a self-made politician, Suga is a rarity in the country's largely hereditary world of politics.
But despite his influence and his political skills at home, Suga has hardly traveled overseas, and his diplomatic skills are unknown, though he is largely expected to pursue Abe's priorities. On Saturday, he noted the importance of Japan-China relations and said he would patiently work to improve ties with the world's second-largest economy.
Abe failed to achieve his goals to settle a territorial row and sign a peace treaty with Russia or to normalise ties with North Korea.
Suga would also inherit unfinished business on other challenges. China continues its assertive actions in the East China Sea. He will have to decide what to do with the Tokyo Olympics, and tackle Covid-19 and the economic fallout. And he will have to establish a good relationship with whoever wins the US presidential race.
"Suga has demonstrated influence in domestic policies, but his diplomatic skills are unknown," said Yu Uchiyama, a University of Tokyo politics professor. "But I think there will be little change."