TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe picked two veteran lawmakers with friendly ties to China for top party posts on Wednesday, in an apparent signal of hope for a thaw in chilly ties with Beijing and a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The change in executives in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is part of a broader leadership rejig, including a cabinet reshuffle, which is aimed at strengthening party unity and polishing Abe's image.
His new line-up faces a number of challenges, including how to repair ties with China that have been frayed by rows over disputed territory and Japan's wartime history, and whether to go ahead with a planned sales tax rise next year despite signs that the economy is faltering.
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 hike the sales tax in two stages to curb Japan's huge public debt. Implementation of 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 conservative 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 Chinese leader 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 told a news conference as China marked the anniversary of its World War Two victory over Japan.
The China issue aside, Abe will retain core members such as Suga, Finance Minister Taro Aso, 73, Economics Minister Akira Amari, 65, and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 57, signalling policy continuity.
Former vice defence minister Akinori Eto is expected to take over from moderate conservative Itsunori Onodera as defence minister, Japanese media said. He will also lead the new post of national security reform as Abe pushes ahead efforts to ease the limits of Japan's pacifist constitution on its military.
The little-known Eto, who is close to Abe, belongs to a group of lawmakers advocating visits to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, although his office said he has not visited the shrine this year.
Abe's pilgrimage there in December outraged China, where the shrine is viewed as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. He has since avoided visiting the shrine in person.
"Eto is close to Abe and has expertise in defence matters," Ito said. "But he will not have a lot of influence. The message from the appointments to the two party posts is stronger."
Abe has not revamped his cabinet since returning to office in December 2012, a record for a post-World War Two premier. That means dozens of veterans in his male-dominated LDP are eager to be tapped for a post.
Abe, who surged to power promising to revive the economy and bolster Japan's security stance in the face of a rising China, has seen his support slip to around 50 per cent, still high for a Japanese premier but off early peaks of around 60 per cent.
In a bid to bolster his reformist image, Abe, who has made a push to get more women into the workforce a linchpin of his"Abenomics" growth plan, was expected to appoint women to five posts in his 18-minister cabinet, equalling a record set by Junichiro Koizimi in 2001.
Yuko Obuchi, 40, the daughter of a former prime minister and mother of two, will be minister of trade and industry, while LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi, 53, an Abe ally and former minister for gender equality in his first cabinet in 2006, will be named minister of internal affairs and communications, media said.