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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is faced to navigate a difficult path between China and the United States

By Shuhei Kuromi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer


At the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recorded a speech for the United Nations General Assembly’s general debate scheduled to start Tuesday. Suga is to express his intention to continue the diplomatic efforts of his predecessor Shinzo Abe in the speech, according to sources.


The U.N. General Assembly, which usually brings world leaders together, would have been an opportunity for Suga to make his diplomatic debut. However, the leaders and members of delegations did not visit the U.N. headquarters in New York this year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.


Abe visited 80 countries and regions in his seven years and nine months in office, a record high among past prime ministers. He increased Japan’s presence in the international community by building relationships of trust through repeated meetings with the leaders of major countries.


However, Suga has been forced to deal with foreign affairs amid an unusual situation in which opportunities for in-person diplomacy are limited, making it difficult to foster personal ties with heads of states.


A prevailing view overseas is that Suga will put more emphasis on achieving results in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and domestic reforms rather than international issues, according to a source close to the U.S. government.


The biggest challenge for Suga will be building a relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. Abe met with Trump shortly after he was elected U.S. president in November 2016 and developed a “special relationship,” according to a senior Foreign Ministry official. While maintaining a strong Japan-U.S. alliance under the Trump administration, which advocates an “America First” policy, Abe was even expected to play a role in keeping Trump, who tends to focus on his own priorities, in line with the international community.


Suga held his first telephone talks with Trump on Sunday. As Trump has called on U.S. allies to increase their burden on defense spending, negotiations on stationing costs for U.S. forces in Japan, which are expected to start soon, are likely to run into rough waters. While the circumstances may not be the same for Suga as they were for Abe, the prime minister must build a stable bilateral relationship.


The United States and China are increasingly at odds over technological supremacy and Beijing’s military rise, among other matters. The United States has stepped up efforts to exclude China from the supply chain for security-related products and parts. Washington is seeking cooperation from its allies, including Japan, and other friendly nations.


While the Japan-U.S. alliance has been the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy, the nation also shares strong economic ties with China. Japan’s handling of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned state visit to Japan is certain to have an impact on Japan-U.S. relations and the international community.


Suga expressed a negative view of “anti-China sentiment” in a debate during the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election. The growing influence of LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, who is known for his pro-China stance, has triggered concern among LDP members that this might affect diplomacy with China.


“Suga will have to navigate a difficult path between China and the United States,” The Wall Street Journal claimed in a recent report.

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