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Top Cabinet secretary Suga to make diplomatic debut amid post-Abe speculation

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga raises a board bearing the new era name "Reiwa" during a press conference in Tokyo on April 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Shigeto Tanji)

TOKYO -- Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is making his debut on the diplomatic front as he is set to meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and other officials during his visit to the United States from May 9 through 12. In the upcoming talks, Suga will bring up issues including the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea.

It is rare for a chief Cabinet secretary, who is tasked with the country's crisis control, to make a trip abroad. Suga has an established reputation for his prowess in assisting the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while keeping a watchful eye over bureaucrats at government ministries and agencies. His recognition among the Japanese public also surged after he announced the new Imperial era name "Reiwa" on April 1, earning him the nickname "Uncle Reiwa." Within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Suga is touted to be a favorite candidate in the next party leadership election.

"The abduction issue is the top priority agenda for the Abe Cabinet. I would like to enhance collaboration between the Japanese and U.S. governments toward the resolution of the issue," Suga told a press conference on May 7, explaining the objective of his U.S. trip. It marks his second visit overseas in his capacity since he flew to Guam in October 2015.

Arrangements are being made for his meetings with Pence, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, among other figures. Suga also plans to attend a symposium to be held at the United Nations headquarters in New York, where he will call for cooperation for an early settlement of the abduction issue.

Suga doubles as minister in charge of the abduction issue, who normally attends the symposium, and he has emphasized that he is visiting the U.S. in that role. As his domestic profile is soaring with the Reiwa announcement, observers say his upcoming trip will also be an opportunity for his diplomatic prowess as a post-Abe hopeful to be tested.

In a monthly magazine article released in April, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai raved about Suga as someone who "well deserves" being a prime ministerial candidate. Former LDP Secretary-General Makoto Koga also told a BS NTV program last month that Suga "is inarguably one of the post-Abe hopefuls." His comment came despite Koga being honorary chairman of the LDP faction led by party policy chief Fumio Kishida, another post-Abe hopeful. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso is also keeping an eye out for Suga's moves ahead of the next party presidential contest.

However, Suga has played down such speculation, reiterating his position that he is not aiming for the next party presidency. A senior official at the prime minister's office said, "Suga himself has not shown such aspirations at all. He is strong as he does not exhibit his ambitions or desires."

In the 2012 LDP leadership election, Suga persuaded Abe to run in the race, telling him that he was the sole viable candidate. A senior ruling party official commented, "If Suga was told he would be the only viable contender in the next party leadership race, he probably wouldn't be able to decline."

(Japanese original by Katsuya Takahashi, Political News Department)

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