By Sakura Murakami
TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has picked a woman as foreign minister and appointed as defence minister a politician who has worked to build ties with Taiwan in Wednesday’s new cabinet line-up.
The choices, among 11 new faces and five women, spotlight a focus on gender equality and a stronger line on defence, as Kishida battles sagging ratings and with his term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) set to end next year.
Both ministers face the task of navigating ties with China that soured after Japan began releasing into the Pacific Ocean treated radioactive water from its wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant, angering its neighbour.
“This is a cabinet that finds its strength in change… I’ve appointed ministers who are people of action to execute the three pillars of economic, social, and diplomatic policies,” Kishida said at a news conference held Wednesday evening.
Kishida said the new defence minister will be Minoru Kihara, a pro-Taiwan politician who has visited the democratically-governed island in the past and belongs to a Japan-Taiwan interparliamentary group.
“I do think this sends a message that Japan is seeking stability in Taiwan alongside the United States,” said security expert Takashi Kawakami at Takushoku University in the capital.
The choice of Kihara as defence minister is not an anti-China move, but indicates a closeness with Taiwan, he added.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory and will be sensitive to any shift in Japan’s stance on the island.
Kihara will also oversee efforts to bolster Japan’s military in a plan to double defence spending over the five years to 2027, and grapple with funding the buildup as tension rises in East Asia over China’s military expansion and maritime disputes.
The new foreign minister is Yoko Kamikawa, a former justice minister who oversaw the execution of key members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult responsible for the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
The choice of Kamikawa, who has a master’s degree from Harvard University, shows the government wants to ensure smooth ties with the United States, said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of politics at Tokyo University.
“She has plenty of experience, and I do think she will make significant contributions to strengthening ties with the United States,” he said.
One political commentator said ministerial roles had diminished in importance, however, as summits increasingly become a forum for dialogue with China.
“Around the world, summit diplomacy has become mainstream,” said Shigenobu Tamura, who previously worked for the LDP.
“Even if the foreign and defence minister posts change, there won’t be any change or impact on Japan’s diplomatic policy.”
The cabinet reshuffle comes amid a dip in popularity for Kishida, following a string of scandals from data mishaps linked to government identity cards and the arrest of a vice minister on suspicion of graft.
About 43% of respondents disapproved of Kishida’s leadership while 36% approved, a poll by public broadcaster NHK showed last week.
Kishida, who assumed office two years ago, retained both his finance and trade ministers, signalling there would be no major shift in economic policies.
The new cabinet’s priorities include pulling together a fresh package of economic stimulus to cushion the squeeze on households from rising fuel bills, tackling the fallout from persistent inflation.
(Reporting by Sakura Murakami, Tim Kelly, Yoshifumi Takemoto, Francis Tang, Chang-Ran Kim and Kantaro Komiya; Editing by Stephen Coates, Clarence Fernandez and Chizu Nomiyama)