Washington – It’s been a month and a half since Shinzo Abe’s abrupt resignation, and Washington’s attention quickly shifted to successor Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — virtually an unknown politician among the international community despite the fact that he had played a powerful role throughout the Abe administration as chief Cabinet secretary. Gradually, Washington is beginning to see the outlines of Suga’s policies from the viewpoint of U.S.-Japan relations.
His pledge for continuity has been welcomed, but still many questions loom among the foreign-policy community in Washington about the new prime minister.
Abe’s resignation came as such a shock to Washington that the Center of Strategic International Studies (CSIS) — one of the premier think tanks in the U.S. — hosted for the first time in two decades an event featuring the change of government in a foreign country. CSIS President and former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said that he “would be forever grateful to Prime Minister Abe because he stepped forward to carry the flag of progressive Western values, democracy, free enterprise, transparency, and all those foundational values — at the time America was confused and not leading.”
Certainly, Abe was arguably the most consequential prime minister in terms of the U.S.-Japan relationship since Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. While Yoshida brought about independence and paved the way for post-war reconstruction by signing the Treaty of San Francisco, Abe fundamentally transformed the expectation of Japan in the international community in the eyes of Washington.
Hamre described the situation that the U.S. and Japan are “no longer big brother little brother but twins,” who “think about the world in profoundly new and constructive ways together.”
During his nearly eight years in office, Abe has indeed set a very high bar for Suga to follow. Abe infused a renewed sense of confidence in the Japanese people by bringing long-term stability to the political leadership and firmly establishing a top-down style in major decision making over key ministries.
He put national security front and center in Japan’s national political discourse and effectively played a leadership role in the international community by stressing the importance of universal values such as freedom, democracy, and rule of law, which was rarely seen before by a Japanese prime minister.
And lastly, he was pragmatic about China. He stood firm against Beijing on critically important national interests, while avoiding direct conflict. He managed to achieve this highly difficult goal by keeping the U.S., Australia, and India engaged in the region in the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision and securing relationships with key ASEAN countries by visiting all of them early on in his administration.
Suga certainly understands the political importance of continuity. But Suga, as a self-made politician with a strong sense of conviction, has his own policy priorities. Several issues remain as big questions in the eyes of Washington’s Asia policy experts.
First, there is a question of whether Suga can avoid the revolving door of prime ministers, which followed the last stable premiership of Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2006.
In fact, Suga has just 12 months to serve out the remainder of the term for the party leadership, which Abe would have held until next September. In order to be re-elected as LDP president for a regular three-year term to continue on as prime minister, he may call a snap general election. In a way, the new Cabinet, which has only five new appointees among the 21 posts, is essentially a carry-over Cabinet. Suga can form a Cabinet of his own liking only after he solidifies his political base.
Second, there is a question of whether Suga can maintain the strong strategic relationship with the U.S. regardless of who that country’s next president will be. With the exception of Yasuhiro Nakasone, Koizumi and Abe, no other Japanese prime minister established a meaningful personal relationship that had a positive impact on the actual bilateral relationship.
Suga, who served as internal minister in the first Abe Cabinet, is mainly a domestically oriented politician who does not display charm in American fashion like Abe or Koizumi. Suga is not known to enthusiastically talk about foreign and security policies. As a matter of fact, he said “Prime Minister Abe’s top-level relation-building is tremendous. I can’t do the same.” Suga may solicit guidance from Abe in addition to his trusted officials within the Foreign Ministry, but his ability to establish mutual trust with the U.S. leadership is currently not a sure thing.
Third, there is a question of whether Suga will try to become an effective and pragmatic leader in the international community to advance Japan’s national interest like his predecessor. Will Suga continue to push forward free trade? Will he continue to press the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision with the U.S., Australia, and India? Will he continue to vocally defend liberal international values and institutions? Will he continue to skillfully manage Japan’s relationship with China? He did not mention or emphatically talked about these critically important foreign policy issues in his first major speech at the U.N. last month. There are several crucial questions with serious geopolitical ramifications.
Fourth, there is a question of what Suga’s domestically oriented policies might mean to the U.S.-Japan relationship. One of his priority issues, for example, is a reduction of cell phone charges, which are expensive compared with international standards. The U.S. has held very tough negotiations with Japan to lower telecom interconnection rates in the past. One U.S. Trade Representative veteran said it is now all coming back.
A bigger issue is Suga’s desire to create the Digital Agency. One of the goals of the new agency is to raise Japan’s international competitiveness by advancing technological innovation through breaking up vested interests across ministerial boundaries. The U.S. based GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) and China based BATH (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei) are fiercely competing to gain advantageous positions as internet and digital platforms.
It is totally not clear how Suga’s idea of the Digital Agency fits into this great competition from both Japan and the U.S.’s viewpoints.
Lastly, there is a question of whether Suga will try to help a new generation of LDP leaders emerge. Abe had no interest in a generation change in Japan’s leadership. Both Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, who ran for the party leadership, are his contemporaries. Suga is even older than Abe.
Suga appointed Taro Kono, who at 57 is 14 years his junior, minister in charge of administrative reform to play a major role in his domestic deregulation policies. Kono, who is known to have a close relationship with Suga, wasted no time in pushing the new prime minister’s deregulation initiatives by promoting online transactions and proposing to abolish hanko personal seals.
Among five newly appointed ministers, three are relatively young. Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi is 61 years old, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Kotaro Nogami is 53 years old, and the minister in charge of international exposition, Shinji Inoue, is 50 years old.
Considering the fact that the two presidential candidates in the U.S. are in their seventies, Suga might play a role in ushering in the next generation of political leadership in the U.S.-Japan relationship.
All of these questions about Suga remain in the eyes of alliance managers in Washington. With uncertainty deepening in the U.S. presidential election, one thing is certain, the seemingly stable U.S.-Japan relationship is not on autopilot.
Satohiro Akimoto is chairman and president of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
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