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In Japan's foreign policy, Suga can counter chaos with pragmatism

Mr Suga has a great deal of potential, having served as Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary for eight years.

YOSHIHIDE Suga was elected Japan's prime minister by a vote in the parliament's lower house on Wednesday. He becomes the country's first new leader in nearly eight years, after Shinzo Abe's sudden resignation for health reasons.

Mr Suga was elected president and leader of Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Sept 14, which paved the way for the former Chief Cabinet Secretary (CCS) to become the next Prime Minister.

The world that awaits him is one whose international order has dissolved to a previously unimaginable degree. The confrontation between the US and China as well as the emergence of populism is bringing about a setback from globalism. The Covid-19 outbreak has shrunk the world economy, and growing national debt is proving a serious challenge.

Mr Suga's new start is coupled with major responsibility, as there is still a long way to go to contain the Covid-19 pandemic as well as a need to restore Japan's national economy and to bring back the cooperative practices that have completely gone out of fashion in the international community.

It is not only Japan. Leaders in all countries lack enough experience to face these difficulties. However, the type of leadership needed to carve out a future in an age of crisis is not an idealistic, but rather, a pragmatic one.

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From this perspective, Mr Suga has a great deal of potential. The CCS is a cornerstone of the Japanese government - a person who has access to all information and acts like a control tower, managing everything from policy coordination to crisis management. There is no other Japanese politician who has served as CCS for almost eight years.

Mr Suga has thorough knowledge about how to manage bureaucrats and has also built deep ties with ruling coalition partner, Komei Party. Unlike his predecessor, he does not have strong backing from a particular party faction or conservatism, so it is expected that a snap election will be held soon to raise his legitimacy with the help of public opinion.

As regards to domestic policy, the new prime minister has pledged to implement administrative reorganisation, deal with digital transformation, and improve productivity by reorganising small and medium-sized enterprises. Nobody doubts his skill in domestic affairs, but even before his appointment, there was a lot of criticism that foreign policy should be the main point of concern.

In that respect, however, he has carved out a position for himself built on careful consideration by working in tandem with the bureaucrats that advise him. He has a deep understanding of the main points of Japanese foreign policy - the need to maintain and ensure the Japan-US security alliance, to take a leadership role in making global rules while recruiting more partners from outside the alliances, and to stabilise the surrounding environment - while engaging with China at the same time.


Of course, former prime minister Mr Abe might have a slight upper hand as the golf lover who built a personal relationship with US President Donald Trump. And, unlike the case of Mr Abe, who has eloquently given many addresses to international audiences, we as analysts will likely have a hard time trying to grasp the characteristics of Mr Suga's diplomacy.

Even so, the exceptional visit to the US that he made as CCS last year does indicate a strong intention to prioritise the Japan-US relationship.

He is also not likely to make the "history problem" a point of contention with neighbours. Although Japan's position in the Japan-US-China relationship grows more difficult to maintain as the US-China conflict intensifies, he will probably try to adroitly maintain the Japan-China relationship. At the same time, it has been said that he is harsh on South Korea, so pessimism might prevail when it comes to mending Japan-South Korean ties, since there are few signs that things will change in South Korea either.

There is also no doubt that the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) will be maintained for the time being. There exists a strong consensus in the government on strengthening relations with Australia, India, and Asean nations, so he will not make a U-turn on this. Rather, he will seek to maintain the international order by strengthening relations with the UK, France, and Germany to pull extra-regional countries into the FOIP.

The Japan-UK Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was recently agreed upon in large part, and will likely be ratified soon. Efforts will probably also be made to expand the cooperation with the Five Eyes alliance. In any case, rather than pinning his hopes on foreign-policy negotiations with countries that have a low chance of success, the prime minister will definitely try to solidify the existing foundation by prioritising relations with the US and other countries with common aims. He will likely also not hold back his support for the global health initiatives aimed at tackling Covid-19.

In the area of security policy, Mr Suga will probably be careful about furthering the debate on Japan's strike capacity at this point in time. He will quietly put more restrictions in place to prevent the outward flow of technology and incoming investments as a way to guard better against China.

Of course, the challenge is how to achieve common ground with the other countries in a situation where the US adopts an overly hard stance on China. It is also uncertain whether the post-coronavirus world will reach the same heights of globalisation again. Japan faces the same problems as other Asian countries and Europe. Yet, precisely because we are finding ourselves in these turbulent times, it is not a bad thing to have a pragmatic leader who has abundant experience. THINKCHINA

  • The writer is associate professor of international relations at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, the University of Tokyo

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