Since taking office a month ago, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has held a marathon of teleconferences with world leaders and met face-to-face with high-ranking foreign government officials, eager to shake off criticism that he is a diplomatic novice and doubts over whether he can continue the legacy of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Now set to embark on his first foreign visit, heading to Vietnam and Indonesia from Sunday, the prime minister is facing yet another crucial stress test, this time on the global stage.

By picking two prominent members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as his destinations, Suga is demonstrating Tokyo’s resolve to counter an assertive Beijing through Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) policy, and economic and national security cooperation with the region.

Although government officials insist the visit and its objectives are not meant to antagonize China, it will certainly invite close scrutiny from the world’s second largest economy, as well as the United States — with which the Asian giant is locked in a bitter dispute — and others in the region. Many are keen to see how Japan’s new leader will embody his vision for diplomacy in one of the world’s most critical geopolitical arenas.

“The ASEAN is located at the center of the Indo-Pacific region and is critical for achieving a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Suga was quoted as saying during a ruling Liberal Democratic Party board meeting Tuesday. “I hope to present determination, at home and abroad, that Japan will take a leadership role in contributing to this region’s peace and prosperity.” Suga’s first stop will be Hanoi, where he will meet with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, then he will travel to Jakarta to meet with President Joko Widodo, before returning Oct. 21. He had already spoken with both leaders by phone this week to lay the groundwork for his trip.

During the visit, Suga is expected to reaffirm commitment to a FOIP, and infrastructure development with both nations. With Vietnam, Suga hopes to bolster economic ties through the promotion of free trade, diversification of supply chains and national security cooperation. While visiting the country, he is scheduled to deliver a speech on his foreign policy in Asia.

With Indonesia, the prime minister wants to confirm efforts to resume personnel exchanges between both countries that were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also keen to facilitate discussions on exporting defense equipment to the country and on holding the second bilateral meeting between both countries’ defense and foreign ministers soon. Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia with which Japan has a “two-plus-two” dialogue mechanism on international and defense affairs.

Expectations are high for the prime minister’s debut trip abroad, which comes at a time when leaders worldwide are gradually resuming face-to-face meetings that had been halted by the pandemic. Suga will undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before leaving Japan and wear a mask while he is traveling from place to place, but is likely to remove it during official events on the trip. Like Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Suga is exempt from self-quarantine for 14 days after returning to Japan.

Earlier this month, Tokyo hosted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, inviting top foreign affairs officials from the other three “Quad” countries — India, Australia and the U.S.

Suga’s trip is set to be a major moment for the new leader to showcase his diplomatic prowess. While he was running in the LDP presidential race, a prerequisite to becoming prime minister, critics described Suga’s lack of diplomatic experience as a liability, and dismissed the claim that having sat with Abe during teleconferences with world leaders counted as foreign policy credentials.

When quizzed about the gap by a moderator during a debate in mid-September, Suga was visibly irritated and fought back, in contrast with the signature tight-lipped demeanor on display in his daily press briefings when he was chief Cabinet secretary.

“I was involved in all critical decision-making on foreign affairs issues,” Suga said on Sept. 12. “The remark (from the moderator) suggests I wasn’t doing anything because I was with Abe. Attending diplomatic teleconferences means I’m consulted beforehand about what kind of discussions we’d have or what kind of policies we’d propose.” He added that he would carve out his “own diplomatic style” after admitting he would not be able to match that of Abe, who made frequent trips abroad to deepen personal relationships.

The four-day trip will be a golden opportunity for him to reveal the style he has in mind. But according to Masahisa Sato, an Upper House member who leads the LDP’s foreign affairs division, it would be premature to draw conclusions on what Suga’s diplomacy doctrine will look like from this trip alone.

Although he will eventually need to present a philosophy on foreign affairs, Sato noted that the pandemic has curtailed regular diplomatic activities, and that past prime ministers have taken some time to thrash out their own approaches.

Even Abe’s FOIP took over three and a half years to develop after a series of diplomatic efforts toward a Democratic Security Diamond. The FOIP calls for establishing “a rules-based international order” offering maritime security, free and fair economic partnerships and transparent infrastructure investment — without explicitly mentioning China, to lower the bar for countries to take part.

Suga, Sato explained, would have more flexibility in developing foreign policies if he had won a Lower House election. The first under this administration must be held by fall next year.

“The beginning of Suga diplomacy is fundamentally the continuation of the approach taken by Abe,” Sato said in an interview with The Japan Times on Wednesday. “It’s composed of two pillars: the Japan-U.S. partnership and the FOIP… so I think Vietnam and Indonesia are great choices from the standpoint of the ASEAN.”

For Tokyo, they are two countries that cannot be overlooked. The former is chairing the ASEAN this year while the latter, with over 260 million people, has the largest market and population among ASEAN countries.

Japan has a history of pouring massive foreign aid and private investment into the region, following then-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda’s visit in 1977 and through subsequent policies established under the Fukuda Doctrine.

Although a Foreign Ministry official stressed that the FOIP, which is among subjects Suga is expected to bring up during his trip, does not target China, that’s not to say he will be leaving China out of the picture.

Both Vietnam and Indonesia, like Japan, are increasingly alarmed by China’s rising presence in the South China Sea in recent years.

Hanoi is especially sensitive to Beijing’s unyielding posture on expanding its military presence, with memories of the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 not yet having faded. The country’s leaders are even tilting in favor of embracing the U.S. as an ally, something unthinkable in the 1970s when the two countries were entangled in bloody conflict.

And Jakarta has been agitated by the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the country’s territorial waters in the South China Sea.

At the same time, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia all agree on avoiding direct confrontation with China, aware of the potential economic and geopolitical consequences. Even if Suga does not intend to unnerve China, the visit is likely to cause a stir among political elites in Beijing.

“If Japan wants to be the chief flag-waver (for the FOIP), it doesn’t necessarily have to be all out counter-China, and it’d be sufficient to call for the basic rule of law, maritime national security, transparency and openness,” said Upper House member Sato.

Meanwhile, China is feeling increasingly desperate for an ally as its relations with major countries such as the U.S and Australia unravel, said the foreign ministry official. Mindful of the importance of wooing the ASEAN to its side, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited five countries in the region this week, announcing that distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine would be prioritized there.

From the perspective of ASEAN countries, what’s being embraced is so-called “equidistant diplomacy,” meaning not picking any single country for an alliance and seeking to be on amicable terms with all countries, said Hiro Katsumata, an associate professor specializing in ASEAN national security at Tohoku University.

Competition between Japan and China is advantageous for ASEAN nations to draw benefits from both sides, he said. Japan has provided substantial aid since the 1980s and China did the same about a decade later — when Western nations attempted to shun the country over the Tiananmen Square protests — in order to seek the friendship of the countries in Southeast Asia.

With Beijing trying to win over ASEAN nations with its Belt and Road initiative, a massive global infrastructure program key for rapid urbanization but seen as a tool for expansionist policy, Tokyo is growing almost desperate to reinforce its influence in the area ahead of China’s latest charm offensive.

When Abe visited in 2013, he laid out the Five Principles of Japan’s ASEAN Diplomacy, which spelled out Tokyo’s intention to cooperate with ASEAN countries to “protect and promote… universal values, such as freedom, democracy and basic human rights,” offering a hint that Japan would not back down against China.

“Japan is competing with China on making friends, and the main battleground is in the ASEAN,” Katsumata said. “Japan is handling rough relations in northeast Asia — South Korea, China and North Korea — so its intention is to solidify its footing from Southeast Asia…. For Prime Minister Suga, it’s obvious that (the trip) is to establish Japanese presence… politically and economically.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.