AJapan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, takes over the reins of the world’s third-largest economy this week, he inherits an internal agenda stifled by the coronavirus pandemic, the country the largest economic downturn recorded and the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
The leader of one of America’s closest allies also steps into a tense geopolitical climate amid the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relationship. However, experts say that this new prime minister is largely untested in the arena of foreign policy.
“Suga is more country-oriented and some questions have been raised about his tendency to deal with foreign relations and international affairs,” said Donna Weeks, a professor of political science at Musashino University in Tokyo.
Suga takes over the country’s longest-serving prime minister, 65-year-old Shinzo Abe, who resigned for health reasons.
Abe, who became an internationally recognized statesman during his second term as prime minister, made President Donald Trump a top priority. He was the first foreign leader to meet Trump after Elections of 2016, and invited Trump to be the first foreign leader to meet the new emperor of Japan in 2019.
During Trump’s visit to Japan 2019, Abe’s search became headlines. They played a round of golf (stopping to take a hilarious selfie between the holes), ate a hamburger lunch, sat on the side seats of the rings at a sumo contest, and then entered a Japanese dinner with Barbecue.
When Abe announced in late August that he was retiring, Trump was quick to comment on Twitter. He called Abe “the greatest prime minister in Japan’s history,” adding that “Japan’s relationship with the United States is the best it has ever been.”
This begs the question: what does a new prime minister mean for US-Japan relations?
A change from personal politics
Trump’s foreign policy has often been determined by his personal relationships with world leaders, and Abe seems to have fostered among the closest ties to the volatile American President.
Suga, Abe’s chief secretary, is expected to largely follow in the footsteps of his predecessor when it comes to foreign policy. But he may not be able to copy the Trump-Abe bromance, not least because he admits he lacks diplomatic skills.
“The diplomacy of Prime Minister Abe’s leadership was truly amazing. “I do not think I can match it,” Suga said on September 12, adding that he would do so continue to consult Abe on foreign relations.
Still, Suga’s role as Abe’s right-hand man for the past eight years means he has a strong understanding of how to manage relations with the US, says Yoshikazu Kato, an associate associate professor at the Global Institute of the University of Hong Kong.
Yoshihide Suga, president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), meanwhile, receives a round of applause after being elected Prime Minister of Japan during an extraordinary session in the lower house of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on September 16, 2020.
Kiyoshi OtaBloomberg / Getty Images
The White House said in a statement that Trump “expects to work with Prime Minister Suga to make [relations] even stronger. “
“Suga is less aloof than Abe, but he knows what to do – at least until November,” said Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia and president of Japan at the Washington DC-based think tank. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tells TIME. “One of [Suga’s] the most important jobs for the near future will be managing President Trump’s constant insults and unpredictability. “
The benefits of the U.S. shab offensive in the US are also under discussion. Trump still imposed aluminum and steel tariffs in Japan, Abe with strong weapon in one unilateral trade agreement and proposed to quadruple the $ 2 billion Japan pays for the reception of American troops in the country. And Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major regional trade deal that Japan had promoted as a way to contain China’s growing influence.
Still, Suga is not a completely unknown quantity in Washington and has already established relationships with some senior US officials. He met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Tokyo in 2018 and visited Washington DC Last May, meeting with Vice President Mike Pence (at the time, Suga’s visit sparked speculation that he was being cleared for a bigger role).
Experts say Suga will closely monitor the US election to determine what Biden’s presidency might mean for Japan.
“Japan is very interested in the US election because Mr Biden ‘s move to China has a huge impact on Japan,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “Japan wants the US to prevent China’s military aggression in Asia.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks with then-Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on October 6, 2018.
Eugene HoshikoAFP / Getty Images
Read more: Yoshihide Suga will succeed Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister. What else is there for Japan?
Domestic problems may take precedence over foreign policy
At first, the new prime minister may be overwhelmed by trouble at home. The 71-year-old inherits a COVID-19-damaged economy, which he will have to try to revive despite a shrinking and aging population. He will also have to determine the fate of the Tokyo-driven Olympics.
He said on September 11 that his main advantages will fight the virus and turn the economy around.
“I think Suga will focus on COVID-19 first,” says Weeks, of Musashino University.
Abe u perball public scrutiny for its treatment of the virus. Although Japan’s response has been more effective than many other nations, many in Japan perceived the national government response as too slow. As of September 17, about 1,480 people have died and 77,000 have been infected in Japan.
Read more: Donald Trump did not notice when Shinzo Abe made a crash on the golf course
A balancing act
Even while cheating on a busy domestic agenda, Suga will still have to do an act of balancing between the US and China, which was not made easier by the particularly auspicious relations between the superpowers.
Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University campus in Tokyo, tells TIME that Suga will prioritize U.S. relations, but he will also seek to maintain the fusion in relations with China. Economic ties between Japan and China had improved under Abe, but historical tensions remain and Chinese incursions into Japanese waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) have sparked agitation.
China expects to deepen cooperation to combat COVID-19 and boost economic ties, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
An editorial at the end of August in Global times, a state-led spokesman for the Chinese Communist Party, called for closer partnership with Japan amid strained relations with US “China must win support from countries like Japan” as it faces strategic easing by US .BA “, she said.
Suga has also said he wants to settle an unfinished business on the diplomatic front. Abe had failed in his goal of resolving several wartime legacies, including normalizing ties with North Korea and signing a peace treaty with Russia to formally end their hostilities in World War II.
In early September, Suga told a news conference that he would consider meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un without preconditions. He said he wants to “Make some progress” on the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, a goal that Abe said he contrite not reaching.
As for North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy, it will be important for Japan to continue working closely with the US, says Nakabayashi of Waseda University.
While some in Japan worry about the rare uncertainty this new administration brings, experts say the US-Japan alliance is likely to remain stable under Suga.
“If he follows Abe, and this seems likely, he will seek a better economic relationship with China, despite changes in security, territory and history, and will do whatever it takes to keep Uncle Sam committed to him. ensure safety, “says Kingston of Temple University. About 54,000 US troops have been deployed in Japan and the country is hosting US Navy Seventh Fleet. Japan’s “peaceful” constitution after World War II gave up the war, and Abe stepped down without fulfilling her highly prized plans to change the statute.
Plus, says Kristi Govella, an assistant professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii in Mānoa, the foundations of the US-Japan alliance go much deeper than the bonds between individual leaders.
“The U.S. and Japan share significant interests and values that give them strong incentives to maintain good relations with each other, and that is unlikely to change under a Suga administration,” she says. “Japan is a key US partner in relations with China and North Korea and maintaining stability in the wider region.”
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