Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, resigned on 28 August amid health concerns. His resignation could herald the end of an era of political stability in Japan, leaving his successor, Yoshihide Suga, with a struggling but capable Japan. Mr Suga takes office as a pandemic ravages the world, Japan’s ageing population shrinks and Beijing’s pugnacity intensifies. Mr Suga has pledged to maintain a balance between promoting economic restoration and combatting COVID-19 and is less nationalistic than Mr Abe, implying that he could pursue those promises with clarity and precision. Mr Suga wants to strengthen the important Japan-United States alliance and promote a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” while maintaining stable relations with Beijing. It appears that his foreign policy approach will be similar to that of his predecessor, as he struggles to deal with domestic issues in Japan and the new East Asian security framework.
Mr Abe became Prime Minister of an economically-weak Japan that lacked self-confidence, battled deflation and witnessed a decline in the Japan-US alliance that threatened Tokyo’s security. Mr Abe promised to solve the nation’s problems and make Japan strong and, in many ways, was successful. He earned the trust of foreign leaders, which saw Japan’s status in international affairs rise due to its increased security ties with the US, Australia, India and South-East Asian countries, and Mr Abe’s idea of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. Funding for the military was increased and a set of national secrecy and security laws were passed that allowed Japan’s self-defence forces to be deployed overseas, a strategic circumvention of Japan’s post-War “pacifist” constitution.
Mr Abe changed modern Japan, and his long tenure of over seven-and-a-half years resolved the “revolving door” phenomenon that had doomed Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers to short spells in office. He was, nevertheless, not without perceived shortcomings. A fervent nationalist, he was widely criticised for spending more time on reversing Japan’s Second World War legacy than addressing the economic situation and COVID-19. Relations with South Korea are at their lowest point since the normalisation of the relationship in 1965, due to trade disputes and issues surrounding wartime labour compensation. The restoration of Japanese self-belief was minimal and “Abenomics” did work, but in a limited way.
As Mr Abe’s right-hand man for the entirety of his tenure as Prime Minster, Mr Suga was deeply involved in all major foreign policy decisions made by the Abe Administration. It is likely that Mr Suga will follow Mr Abe down that path, as he acknowledges Mr Abe’s contribution to Japan’s increased clout in the international system and how his foreign policy decisions were largely responsible for that. He wants Japan to continue to wield that influence, and has reiterated Mr Abe’s emphasis on the importance of the US-Japan alliance and promoting a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.
Like his predecessor, Mr Suga wants to maintain stable relations with Beijing but is intransigent on issues related to territory and national security. The disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands will remain a flashpoint, and differences over Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Taiwan will persist. A recent FDI analysis noted the increasingly important role of the Australia-India-Japan nexus in countering China’s claims in the region and Mr Suga’s commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” will see Japan continue to push back against China where necessary, independently or in concert with Australia and India. Beijing ‘congratulated’ Mr Suga on taking office, and relations between Beijing and Tokyo appear to continue along the path taken by Mr Abe. Beijing could “test” Mr Suga through provocation in the East China Sea but, due to the current state of international affairs and growing protests against Beijing’s tactics, that is unlikely.
Mr Suga’s adherence to Mr Abe’s foreign policy line suggests that any immediate rapprochement with Seoul is unlikely. Tensions that arose from nationalist issues have conflated to issues around trade and culture. Pressing domestic concerns make it unlikely, furthermore, that Mr Suga will focus on Seoul in the near future.
Across the East China Sea, Mr Suga could foster a closer relationship with Taiwan than did Mr Abe. He has repeatedly emphasised the importance of collaboration between Tokyo and Taipei and advocated for the latter’s participation in international forums. The visit of a Japanese delegation, led by former Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, to Taipei on 18 September could portend that collaboration.
Mr Suga takes office at a turbulent time. His pledge to follow Mr Abe’s foreign policy line is not only the right choice in navigating the current East Asian security framework but, as other issues linger, is seemingly the only one. Dissatisfaction with the LDP’s handling of COVID-19 was rife before Mr Abe resigned and amending that situation will be Mr Suga’s immediate priority. Issues such as Japan’s ageing population and its large public debt also need to be addressed.
As a new face on the international stage, it will take time for Mr Suga to forge personal relations with foreign leaders and earn the trust that they vested in Mr Abe. An election looms in the US and only time will tell if Mr Suga can cosy up to the Trump Administration as his predecessor did or bond with an incoming Joe Biden. Mr Suga could call a snap election in an endeavour to consolidate his power and set his own political agenda when the pandemic is over. Whatever the outcome, the foundations that Mr Abe laid will likely underpin Mr Suga’s future course.