By Shashank Mattoo*
When he took over the reins of power scarcely three months ago, Yoshihide Suga was a little-known entity to global observers. Although he had established a reputation as a shrewd backroom politician in his long career, Suga had little experience in foreign affairs and faced repeated questions about it. However, Suga’s brief tenure in office has been characterised by a flurry of diplomatic activity, from visits to Vietnam and Indonesia in October to receiving Australian premier Scott Morrison in November. Suga’s active foreign policy, thus far, has followed the core tenets of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategic doctrine.
In a strategically symbolic move, Suga’s first overseas visit was to Vietnam. During Abe’s tenure as Prime Minister, Southeast Asia was a core Japanese partner and Japan invested billions of dollars into development assistance, infrastructure building and foreign investment in an attempt to build closer ties. By picking Vietnam for his foreign visit, Suga has signalled his determination to continue that engagement. Suga also used the visit to reiterate Japan’s commitment to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and talked up, as Abe often did, the “fundamental commonalities” between Japan and the ASEAN states with regard to freedom of navigation, the rule of law and economic openness in the region.
The visit to Vietnam also reflected a significant deepening of relations between the two countries. When Japan made its much-hyped offer to Japanese companies to move out of China in the aftermath of COVID-19, around half of the participating companies chose to move to Vietnam. Further, Japan has emerged as the second largest source of foreign investment for Vietnam, with Japanese investments inching close to US $60 billion dollars. Further, Japan also agreed to make substantial investments in Vietnam’s energy sector. Another major achievement of Suga’s visit was an in-principle agreement for Japan to supply Vietnam military gear and technology. The unspoken yet clearly understood factor driving both nations to collaborate militarily is China. Vietnam, in particular, has struggled with China’s territorial ambitions in its neighbourhood with the latter staking claim to parts of Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Suga has also begun to feel the heat as Chinese have vessels entered the territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku islands. Having struck the right notes with Vietnam, Suga moved on to Indonesia.
Widodo’s government in Indonesia shares much of Vietnam’s outlook when it comes to cooperation with Japan. Indonesia has been at the receiving end of much Japanese largesse with Japanese companies investing over US$4 billion in the country last year, placing Japan behind only China and Singapore as the largest investor in the Southeast Asian nation. With Indonesia’s economy hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Suga agreed to make a low-interest loan to the tune of US$ 473 million in order to aid Indonesia’s economic recovery. In recent days, Japan has also committed US$ 4 billion to Indonesia’s new sovereign wealth fund, which has come in handy as Widodo tries to combat rising unemployment in his country.
During Suga’s visit, Japan also announced a slew of new infrastructure projects like “the Jakarta MRT network, the upgrading of the Java North Line Railway, the construction and operation of Patimban Port, the development of the Masela Block, and the development of outer islands.” Japan also offered its support in helping Indonesia diversify its supply chains and reduce its dependence on China. Like Vietnam, Indonesia has also faced increased pressure from China as seen in September this year when Indonesian coast guards had to confront a Chinese naval vessel in Indonesia’s territorial waters. As with Vietnam, Japan agreed to work closely on weapons and defence technology. Further, both sides agreed to host a 2+2 (Defence and Foreign Ministers) summit as soon as possible. Once again, both Suga and Widodo talked up the virtues of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific with pledges on both ends to work together on securing the same.
With these meetings it becomes clear that core tenets of the Abe doctrine remain intact. Like his predecessor who visited all ASEAN countries by the end of his first year in office, Suga too has placed the region at the top of his priority list. Like Abe, Suga has made strategic investments in Southeast Asia through low-interest loans and infrastructure investment. Perhaps, most significantly, Suga has proven himself willing to counter China. His continued advocacy for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, first championed by Abe and now echoed by Vietnam and Indonesia, coupled with a substantial deepening of defence commitments with the two powers represents continuity in Japan’s more assertive foreign policy.
Suga’s busy diplomatic schedule culminated with a visit from Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. As with Vietnam and Indonesia, both sides voiced their continued desire to support “cooperation and effective multilateralism through international frameworks, rules, organisations and institutions.” China, however, was at the front and centre of this summit. Both nations also seem increasingly committed to taking a stronger line on China and the joint statement released after the summit directly mentioned Chinese actions in Hong Kong and in the East and South China Sea. On Hong Kong, Tokyo and Canberra stressed the importance of respecting the island’s Basic Law; while on the East China Sea, the powers stressed that they would oppose unilateral actions to change the status quo. The countries most strongly called out China on the South China Sea by declaring their opposition to the “continuing militarisation of two disputed features, dangerous and coercive use of coast guard vessels and ‘maritime militia,’ launches of ballistic missiles, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource exploitation activities.”
In another resounding endorsement of multilateral principles, Japan and Australia called for all parties to work with the UNCLOS to settle maritime disputes and accept the decisions of that body. On the strategic front, a new milestone was achieved with an in-principle agreement on a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) that allows greater inter-operability, training in the other power’s territory and even allowing Japanese Self Defence Forces to potentially defend Australian military assets. While Suga will have to put the RAA before Japan’s Diet for approval, this marks the first time in 60 years (since its security agreement with the US) that Japan has allowed foreign troops on its soil. Even more remarkable was the fact that the Agreement had been stuck in negotiations for six years.
Japan and Australia also committed to working together on expanding investments in healthcare and infrastructure in Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander countries. Once again, concerns over Chinese influence in these regions was at the forefront of discussions and increased cooperation allows both powers to offer strong alternatives to Chinese investment. In all likelihood, China may have also driven the emphasis both parties placed on enhancing economic security and supply chain resilience. 5G, cyber and space cooperation were discussed as both powers agreed to partner on developing these technologies given that the “key element of bilateral security cooperation is to promote coordination in the area of economic security.” Finally, both sides also agreed to expand security relationships with other powers through the Quad and the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue between Japan, the US and Australia.
Suga has defied expectations that his relative inexperience in matters of foreign policy would hold him back. His actions in the past weeks have been to continue core tenets of the Abe doctrine: increased strategic investment in Southeast Asia, expanded defence ties with a host of like-minded powers and a more combative policy on China. His diplomatic blitzkrieg over the past few months is likely to reassure allies that the more assertive Japanese foreign policy that Abe crafted is here to stay. Suga has indeed started strongly.
The author is a research intern at ORF.