How will the diplomacy of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe be carried forward? We have yet to see any concrete strategies from his successor, Yoshihide Suga.
In a news conference after taking office, Prime Minister Suga said he would aim to achieve the “culmination of postwar diplomacy” previously forwarded by Abe. He says he will build a stable relationship with China, Russia and other surrounding countries, on the axis of the Japan-U.S. alliance. Taking over Abe’s diplomacy without change, upholding the diplomatic policy line Japan has adopted to date, is a solid stance.
Suga’s retention of Toshimitsu Motegi as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and his appointment of Abe’s younger brother Nobuo Kishi as Minister of Defense are examples of this position. This approach has the advantage of not creating waves, but Suga needs to show his own colors. Unless he actively presents his own vision, it will be difficult to build trust in international society.
As friction intensifies between the United States and China, Japan has a big role to play. It is important to achieve the right balance between the two powers. In contrast to the Belt and Road Initiative, as China’s large-scale infrastructure development strategy is known, Suga says he will strategically advance the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. At the same time, he has criticized a multilateral military framework in Asia as an anti-China coalition. This framework was proposed by Shigeru Ishiba of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but it is led by the United States.
Suga may have been paying considerations to both the United States and China, but it is hard to say whether his statements are backed up by any clear strategy.
One point that Suga seems intent on underlining is the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. But as we saw with the previous administration, it is impossible to achieve a solution by simply calling for one. While maintaining economic sanctions on North Korea, Suga needs to find new ideas to create a situation that will leave the North with no choice but to face up to the abduction issue.
Separately, a problem that will not be solved simply by proceeding along the line taken by the Abe administration is the U.S. base issue in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. The Okinawa Prefectural Government and other parties remain steadfastly opposed to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from its current location to the Henoko region of Nago, also in Okinawa.
The Japan-U.S. alliance cannot function without local understanding. Unless there is a new proposal, such as revision of the project or an amendment to the Status of Forces Agreement, there will be no breakthrough in the situation.
The administration’s change of hands is a good time to move ahead with stalled diplomatic issues.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has called for progress in relations between Japan and South Korea. Suga should promote dialogue with a view to improving what have been described as the worst relations between the two countries since they established diplomatic ties.
German Chancellor Angel Merkel, meanwhile, has called on Japan to join in multilateral cooperation. It is surely the responsibility of Japan’s new administration to play a leading role in rebuilding international collaboration.