After Abe: How Japan’s new prime minister should handle diplomacy

Shinzo Abe’s aggressive and successful diplomacy has helped make Japan a pillar of liberal democracy and a beneficiary of the rules-based international order. His successor has vowed to protect these interests.

The vote has been cast. Yoshihide Suga is the new Japanese prime minister – succeeding Shinzo Abe, who resigned due to health reasons on 28 August. Long Abe’s right-hand man and his chief cabinet secretary for most of the past eight years, Suga beat Shigeru Ishiba and Fumio Kishida in an emergency presidential vote called by the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The new LDP president has automatically become the new prime minister due to the party’s dominance of the powerful Lower House.

Suga, while factionless himself, had the backing of five out of seven LDP factions, plus a dozen LDP parliamentarians who are not affiliated with any faction. His victory marks a return to factional politics in Japan, particularly within the LDP’s presidential elections.

Suga’s administration will remain in power until at least October 2021, when the next general election is scheduled to take place. However, some LDP members have already stated that there might be a snap general election next month.

So, what are the implications of Suga’s victory? The Suga administration will bring continuity and stability to Japanese politics, and will most likely set the national political agenda. As the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary in Japan’s history, Suga has dedicated his life to running the Abe government and has been significantly involved in all its major domestic and international policies. Unlike Abe, Suga has navigated the world of Japanese politics without the privileges that come with membership of a political dynasty or, until now, strong backing from a party faction. He excelled under the Abe administration partly because he has kept a tight hold on the nation’s bureaucracy. Suga has successfully coordinated domestic affairs (including through several scandals that struck the Abe administration) and overseen crisis management at home.

The EU has an opportunity to develop its relationship with Japan more vigorously.

Domestically, his priority is to tackle the effects of the covid-19 pandemic and to decide what to do about the Tokyo Olympics. The Japanese economy has been deeply affected by the crisis. Consumption, international trade, and other forms of economic activity have declined. The biggest challenge for Suga is to spark an economic revival that leads to sustained growth. His government is likely to adopt an enhanced version of “Abenomics”(a concept based upon the “three arrows” of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform), and to pursue a proactive fiscal policy that includes stimulus packages until the pandemic is under control. In addition, Suga promised during his campaign to introduce measures to protect jobs, create vibrant regional economies, and build a reliable social security system suited to a rapidly ageing society.

Suga’s diplomatic skills are mostly untested, and he lacks Abe’s personal friendships with world leaders. He will try to develop his own personal style but will primarily adopt and intensify Abe’s diplomatic policies. The major foreign policy challenges he faces are in steering Japan’s diplomacy through turbulent relations with its immediate neighbours, a heightened US-Chinese conflict, and deteriorating international cooperation. Abe’s aggressive and successful diplomacy has helped make Japan a pillar of liberal democracy and a beneficiary of the rules-based international order. Suga has vowed to protect these interests.

Like Abe, he regards the long-standing Japan-US alliance as the first priority of his diplomacy. In this context, the US-Chinese conflict is a major concern for Japan. The US is Japan’s only security ally, while China is its largest trade partner. One of Suga’s biggest immediate diplomatic challenges will be to ensure that Japan skilfully manages its relations with the US (especially with regard to the American presidential election in November) and with China (amid conflicts over trade and territorial issues). In this, he will need firm and reliable political instincts. Given that Japan’s relationship with South Korea has severely deteriorated in recent years, a change in government might provide an opportunity to resolve the conflicts between them.

Under Abe, the Japanese government developed and deepened its strategic partnership with EU member states and other European countries. The covid-19 pandemic and the currently tense relationship between the EU and China have brought to light the values, interests, and priorities that the EU and Japan share, such as support for a rules-based international order and multilateralism.

Therefore, the EU has an opportunity to develop its relationship with Japan more vigorously. The relationship has grown in recent years as a result of various frameworks: the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement and the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement – which came into effect in 2019 – and the EU-Japan Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure, which was signed in 2019. The relationship is on a very positive track, and Suga will continue to support it as prime minister. The EU and Japan have an opportunity to distance themselves from China to some extent, and to enhance their collaboration with each other in areas such as the diversification of sources of 5G equipment.

Ultimately, Japan’s ability to remain a visible player in the international community will depend on Suga’s determination and openness on the world stage. But it will also turn on his ability to enhance collaboration with other countries, and to manage the burden of the pandemic at home.

Elli Pohlkamp is a policy fellow at Berlin-based think-tank Progressives Zentrum.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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