While Japan, the third largest economy is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and facing its biggest economic slump on record and has postponed Tokyo Olympics Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga takes over the Charge. On 28 August 2020, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced his intention to resign due to his deteriorating health. On 14 September, Yoshihide Suga was elected as the new president of the Liberal Democratic Party (Japan) (LDP) and after confirmation in the Diet on 16 September; he received an invitation from Emperor Naruhito to form a government as the new Prime Minister.
He takes over from the country’s longest-serving prime minister, 65-year-old Shinzo Abe. Many wondered why an experienced Prime Minister should quit at a time when the country is confronting a tense geopolitical climate amid rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relations and economic recession consequent upon economic lockdowns to contain the Corona pandemic. Japan is one of America’s closest allies and the new premier is yet to prove his acumen in the foreign policy arena. The new Prime Minister is believed to be more domestically-oriented and his propensity to deal with foreign relations and international issues are yet to be tested.
The new PM has been in the helm of affairs for long
Yoshihide Suga, 71. Mr. Suga promises continuity rather than change as he takes the reins. He has been Chief Cabinet Secretary since 2012, as well as the top spokesperson and a key implementer of Mr. Abe’s policies. An elected MP since 1996, Mr. Suga was Minister of State for Internal Affairs and Communications during Mr. Abe’s previous tenure in 2006-07. In his press conference after winning the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party this week, Mr. Suga said his goal is to continue with Mr. Abe’s policies and complete his goals, particularly the tasks of reviving the economy and controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. He has also retained Mr. Abe’s key cabinet choices which include the Finance, Foreign and Environment Ministers.
Foreign Policy and relations with the US
Japan has been known for its pacifist diplomacy for long and Afro-Asian countries have lot of expectations from the new Prime Minister. Japan has been an important aid provider to developing countries for developing their crucial infrastructure such as roads, rails, bridges and social sector. The developing countries would still look up to Japan for development assistance as an alternative especially to China. Since Japan has signaled its companies to avoid putting all their investment and setting up manufacturing units in China only, but to relocate in multiple countries, this may benefit South Asian, South East Asian Countries and especially India if Japan further pursues this strategy. Currently Japan is pursuing China plus one strategy which refers to a strategy in which companies try to diversify risks of concentrating their manufacturing operations in China by setting up a production base in at least one other country.
Japan US relation is very important given China’s overtures in the South China Sea and North Korean nuclear and missile misadventures that may jeopardize peace in the Pacific region. For US a peaceful Asia-Pacific region is important as this century is being described by experts as “the Century of Asia”. Although the US is now very often using Indo-Pacific in place of Asia-Pacific in its foreign policy documents, signaling India’s increasing importance in its Asia policy, importance of Japan for America’s geopolitical strategy cannot be undermined.
On foreign policy the new Prime Minister is seen by many as inexperienced. The former Prime Minister during his second tenure tried to establish a right chord with the US President Donald Trump. He was the first foreign leader to meet Trump after the 2016 election, and invited Trump to be the first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor in 2019. During Trump’s 2019 visit to Japan, Abe’s pandering made headlines. They played a round of golf (stopping to take a smiling selfie in between holes), ate a hamburger lunch, sat at ringside seats at a sumo competition and then tucked into a Japanese barbecue dinner.
When Abe announced in late August Donald Trump commented on Twitter that Abe was “the greatest Prime Minister in the history of Japan,” adding that Japan’s “relationship with the USA is the best it has ever been.” Trump’s foreign policy has often been defined by his personal relationships with world leaders, and Abe appears to have fostered among the closest ties to the volatile American President. The new Prime Minister, Abe’s longtime chief cabinet secretary, is largely expected to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps when it comes to foreign policy. But it may take time for him to be as adept as Abe was in acquiring diplomatic skills that could match Abe’s. He himself confessed, “Prime Minister Abe’s leadership diplomacy was truly amazing. I don’t think I can match that” and added that adding that he will continue to consult with Abe on foreign relations. Experts believe that being Abe’s right-hand man for the last eight years he has a strong understanding of how to manage the relationship with the U.S.
Despite his best intentions to stay the course, he has taken charge at a crucial moment in a rapidly changing world and will need to steer through the outcome of the U.S. elections in November, China’s growing aggressiveness, and a worldwide economic downturn. A main challenge will be to ensure the success of the Tokyo Olympics, now rescheduled for July 2021 due to the pandemic. He has said he will pursue Abe’s unfinished policies and that his top priorities will be fighting the coronavirus and turning around an economy battered by the pandemic. He gained the support of party heavyweights and their followers early in the campaign on expectations he would continue Abe’s line.