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Newly installed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said that he wants to be his own man when it comes to diplomacy. But his dearth of experience means he’ll be relying heavily on key Cabinet ministers and his predecessor’s foreign policy playbook — and advice — as his administration begins.

Although former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was well known for putting his own stamp on diplomatic initiatives and raising Japan’s international profile through 81 overseas visits in his nearly eight-year term, such forays abroad by Suga in recent years are countable on one hand.

Indeed, Suga himself has hinted that it will be virtually impossible for his administration to live up to any expectations of a similar focus on diplomacy — at least initially — as he aims to maintain stability and some degree of continuity from Abe.

“Prime Minister Abe’s leadership diplomacy was truly amazing. I don’t think I can match that,” Suga said during a ruling party presidential election debate Saturday.

“I think there is a diplomatic stance that would fit me and I will stick to my own style, while also seeking assistance from the Foreign Ministry. And of course I will consult with (Abe),” he said.

Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, predicts Abe is highly likely to be involved at least in some way with the new administration.

“It’s very easy to see Abe serving as a personal envoy at times, offering his advice, offering insight into Suga’s foreign counterparts,” he told an online event Tuesday. “It’s easy to see that continuing into a role that his grandfather (former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi) played. It’s very easy to see ways in which Abe will be able to chip in on diplomacy with various countries in the region.”

Experts say outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is highly likely to be involved at least in some way with the new administration. | POOL / VIA AP
Experts say outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is highly likely to be involved at least in some way with the new administration. | POOL / VIA AP

In the near term, this approach is unlikely to significantly impact foreign policy as the world continues to battle the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which continues to limit international travel and events. The pandemic means that Suga will not have to make the same kind of trips overseas that Abe took, which could “give him a little breathing room at first,” Harris said.

“But as things get back to some sort of normal, he’s going to have to really show that he’s capable of having the same kind of relationships,” he said.

This situation has also prompted a shift in focus from Suga himself to those to whom he is widely expected to delegate diplomatic authority.

Suga, who became prime minister Wednesday after serving for years as Abe’s top lieutenant, announced a new Cabinet the same day that retains the services of Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and adds Abe’s younger brother and former state minister for foreign affairs, Nobuo Kishi, as a replacement for popular Defense Minister Taro Kono.

Both Motegi and Kishi could figure prominently in the diplomatic arena under a hands-off approach by Suga.

Retaining a key Abe deputy

By retaining Motegi as foreign minister, Suga will have a veteran Abe Cabinet member to lean on to handle issues such as Japan’s relationships with the U.S., China and the two Koreas.

Motegi, fluent in English and a Harvard graduate, has been praised for his negotiating skills, which were on full display last year when he helped negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. However, he has also faced criticism over his handling of re-entry restrictions imposed on foreign residents of Japan amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, fluent in English and a Harvard graduate, has been praised for his negotiating skills, which were on full display last year when he helped negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. | AFP-JIJI
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, fluent in English and a Harvard graduate, has been praised for his negotiating skills, which were on full display last year when he helped negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. | AFP-JIJI

Motegi is also known for his fealty to Abe, backing the outgoing prime minister in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election two years ago against the wishes of his faction’s boss at the time.

Experts say that retaining Motegi — known as a “Trump whisperer” for his ability to work with mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration — shows that Suga has placed a priority on continuity in foreign affairs, including an ongoing focus on bolstering the nation’s alliance with the U.S.

“Since winning on Monday, Suga certainly has emphasized a domestic-focused agenda,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But he knows what’s at stake for Japan in foreign policy. It will be interesting to see where he asserts his role as prime minister, and what he leaves to Motegi.”

Judging by Suga’s willingness to delegate on diplomatic issues, this could be a lot.

“There may be more for (Suga’s) foreign minister to do than Abe’s foreign ministers sometimes had to do because Abe was conducting so much foreign policy of his own from the Prime Minister’s Office,” Harris said.

Kishi, strike capability and Abe

Entering the Cabinet for the first time as the new defense minister will be Kishi — Abe’s biological brother who was adopted by the Kishi family as an infant.

He entered politics in 2004 as an Upper House lawmaker and has since carved out a career as a security specialist. Over the years, he has committed himself to a slew of defense-related positions, including as deputy foreign minister, Lower House security committee chairman and head of the ruling LDP’s foreign affairs committee.

In an interview with conservative magazine Seiron last year, Kishi, asked about Trump’s “America First” agenda, obliquely backed the idea of Japan acquiring a strike capability to better defend itself against the threat of nuclear-armed North Korea.

“The Japan-U.S. security alliance guarantees that the U.S. military is responsible for the role of ‘attack,’ but I do understand there is a concern that we shouldn’t rely solely on America to deal with a situation that could imperil our nation’s survival,” he said.

Newly-appointed Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi arrives at Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday. | REUTERS
Newly-appointed Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi arrives at Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday. | REUTERS

Harris, author of a recent biography on Abe, said the move to pick Kishi for such a prominent position “certainly gives an ‘Abe color’ to the Cabinet, since Kishi is not known as a rising star within the party.”

Kishi’s position on strike capability, in particular, could be a signal that Abe may play a key role in the Suga administration.

Before leaving office, Abe laid the foundation for a contentious plan to allow strikes on enemy bases, issuing a vague statement questioning whether systems to intercept ballistic missiles alone would be enough and calling for alternatives to defend the country. The new policies, he wrote, should be decided by the end of the year.

“Given Kishi’s expressed support of foreign territory strike capabilities, this is one way Abe can ensure Suga, who is close to (ruling coalition partner) Komeito and not that interested in defense and foreign affairs, does not quietly shelve debate about strike missions,” said Corey Wallace, an expert on Japanese politics and an assistant professor at Kanagawa University.

Although discussions on acquiring a strike capability have in the past petered out for a variety of reasons, that is unlikely to be the case this time.

“Abe obviously didn’t go so far as to bind Suga one way or another, but it’s going to be one of the biggest questions that Suga faces in the coming months,” Harris said.

A U.S. question mark

As for ties with Washington, that remains one of the biggest question marks for Tokyo, especially considering the looming November U.S. presidential election battle between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Closer to home, Tokyo’s frozen ties with neighboring Seoul are unlikely to warm despite a possible outreach by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the new prime minister.

Japan and South Korea relations have plummeted to their lowest point in years over wartime history issues and trade.

U.S. President Donald Trump poses for a photo with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in before a meeting at the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017. | AP
U.S. President Donald Trump poses for a photo with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in before a meeting at the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017. | AP

According to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, this is because much of the South Korean public blames Abe for strained relations, while there remains broad support in Japan for a firm policy toward South Korea’s challenges over history issues and agreements. These include the 1965 treaty that normalized ties between the two countries and was intended, according to Japan, to put a final stamp on all legal compensation issues related to Japan’s colonial rule before and during World War II.

“So bilateral relations won’t improve just because there’s a new prime minister,” Easley said. “However, there will be an opportunity for the Moon administration to improve relations with Suga at little political cost because doing so will not be seen as a concession to Abe.”

But arguably the top and most immediate issue facing Suga and company will be the elephant in the room — an increasingly assertive China — which, according to Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, “could be Suga’s greatest challenge.”

On Saturday, Suga noted the importance of Sino-Japanese relations and said he would patiently work to improve ties with the world’s No. 2 economy. But he will inherit a full plate of unfinished business with Beijing, including its actions in the East China Sea, the status of Taiwan, the fallout from a national security law in Hong Kong and China’s ongoing row with the U.S.

“But Chinese behavior will determine how much latitude Prime Minister Suga has,” Smith said .

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai shakes hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in April last year. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai shakes hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in April last year. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Overall, observers expect to see a mix of continuity and some limited new approaches in Japan’s overall strategy toward China, especially with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, a pro-engagement party heavyweight whose backing was key to Suga’s rise to the top post, having the prime minister’s ear.

“Japan will continue to pursue good relations … where possible — and Nikai’s counsel may be welcome here — but Japan will also seek out new and creative arrangements with other regional actors in the defense and economic spheres, so as to secure supply chains and lessen strategic dependence on the Chinese economy,” said Bryce Wakefield, an expert on Japanese politics and executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

“Luckily for Japan, a lot of the partners it is seeking in the region are on the same page.”

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