By the end of this month, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to leave office without making progress on key diplomatic issues such as North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals.
When taking the helm of the government in September of last year, Suga — who last week announced his intention to step down — took over the foreign policy of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
Although his diplomatic skills had been largely untested, Suga worked to strengthen Japan's alliance with the United States and shared serious concerns about China's aggressive moves with other nations.
But difficult problems, such as the abduction issue and the territorial dispute with Russia over four islands off Hokkaido, remain undiminished. They will be passed to his successor, who will take office after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election on Sept. 29.
Suga's efforts on the diplomatic front were also thwarted by the persisting COVID-19 pandemic.
In his inaugural news conference a year ago, Suga said he would "deploy policies that place a well-functioning Japan-U.S. alliance as their linchpin."
He also said he would maintain the initiative launched by Abe to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Suga has relied on experts at the Foreign Ministry, while Abe took a top-down approach.
A key diplomatic event for Suga was his visit to the United States in April. He was the first foreign leader to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden in person after the president took office in January.
In a joint statement, Suga and Biden called for "peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." It was the first document jointly issued by the two countries' leaders to refer to Taiwan in 52 years.
At a Group of Seven summit in the U.K. in June, Suga worked to strengthen the unity among nations with common values, including by sharing concerns about China.
But Suga made little progress to improve relations with Asian neighbors such as South Korea, partly due to what a Foreign Ministry executive has described as "structural problems" that persist from the time of Abe's administration.
The two countries remain apart over issues related to wartime labor and comfort women, who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.
Suga has been unable to hold a full, formal meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. They only exchanged greetings during the G7 summit.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned state visit to Japan also remains on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suga said he was ready to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions, but has not found any opportunity that could help the two nations realize such a meeting. This summer's Tokyo Olympics could potentially have provided such an opportunity, but North Korea did not participate in the sporting event.
Suga has also been unable to meet in person with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently announced a plan to set up a tariff-free zone on the disputed Russian-held islands.
With his diplomatic activities restricted due to the pandemic, Suga made only three overseas trips since he took office as prime minister.
Suga also shelved discussions on Japan's proposed acquisition of the ability to attack enemy bases — apparently in view of opposition from Komeito, the LDP's ally in the ruling coalition.
The issue, carried over from the Abe administration, may be discussed at a so-called two-plus-two security meeting with the United States to be held later this year.
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