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MOFA, not METI, likely to spearhead Suga administration’s diplomacy

By Koji Sugimoto and Takao Harakawa, staff writers


Although Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has made it clear that he will continue the foreign affairs policies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the new administration may use a different method from its predecessor to make decisions. This is because the Kantei bureaucrats hailing from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), who had led the China-friendly policies, have stepped down. Special Advisors to the Prime Minister Takaya Imai and Eiichi Hasegawa used to promote cooperation with China, despite opposition from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which has been cautious about cooperating in China’s massive “Belt and Road Initiative.” This change at the Kantei is expected to give MOFA an opportunity to re-take the reins of Japan’s diplomacy. In the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the influence of Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who is pro China, has been growing since the party presidential election, making the Suga administration’s China policy somewhat hard to predict.


Imai and Hasegawa left the Kantei on the same day that the Suga administration was launched. Imai was especially close to Abe and led not only cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative, but also negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories. Hasegawa led efforts to enhance economic cooperation with Russia to move the bilateral negotiations forward.


Japan may distance itself from Belt and Road Initiative


Imai and Hasegawa, both from METI, often clashed with those affiliated with MOFA, including former head of the National Security Council Shotaro Yachi, who earlier had served as MOFA vice-minister. Many at the foreign ministry were especially skeptical of building closer ties with China through the Chinese economic initiative. A MOFA official said, “MOFA used to be blamed for being too friendly to China. Now, (compared to METI) we have become the hardliners in regard to ties with China.”


There are signs that the Suga administration will adopt a different mechanism for forming China policy. During an LDP presidential debate on Sept 12, Suga said that his administration will receive reports from the foreign ministry to determine the government’s diplomatic responses. This is viewed as prioritizing MOFA’s role in foreign relations. MOFA may also increase its presence within the National Security Council (NSC), which is the command tower of Japan’s diplomatic and security policies.


The Japan-U.S. alliance and the advancement of the free and open Indo-Pacific initiative are the core of the Suga administration’s foreign policy, just as they were in the Abe administration. However, it will be hard to re-create former Prime Minister Abe’s diplomatic style, which was to build unique diplomatic resources by cultivating close, personal relationships with world leaders. “I cannot do the same,” admits Suga. (Abridged)

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