By Toshiya Takahashi*
New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has promised continuity after Shinzo Abe’s sudden resignation. Since his inauguration, Suga has promoted his own policy agenda in domestic issues such as digital transformation. Like Abe, he also began diplomacy by prioritising the US–Japan and the Australia–Japan relationship, but his approach to foreign policy differs from Abe’s. Suga’s political commitment to foreign affairs is secondary to the focus on domestic issues.
Abe’s foreign policy was unique in Japan’s post-war history as he was actively engaged in diplomacy and spread Japan’s diplomatic wings around the world. He sought to revise constitutional constrains on the use of force by the Japan Self-Defense Forces and created strategies such as Panoramic Diplomacy and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. Whether his foreign policy was a success is up for debate, but the activism marked an exceptional shift in Japan’s foreign policy.
Suga has so far shown respect for Abe’s foreign policy. Suga worked as Chief Cabinet Secretary under Abe for over seven years and the Suga government was born of intra-party politics among key factions that supported Abe, meaning he is in no position to challenge Abe’s policy line.
Soon after becoming prime minister, Suga sent Shigeru Kitamura — the Secretary General of Japan’s National Security Secretariat — to the United States to confirm his government’s continuing commitment to US–Japan security cooperation. He also chose Vietnam and Indonesia as the destinations for his first overseas visits, just as Abe did in his second premiership (2012–20).
In his speech at Vietnam Japan University, Suga emphasised the importance of the FOIP and the rule of law in the South China Sea, both of which Abe had espoused. And in his first policy speech to the Diet as prime minister, Suga affirmed that he would follow Abe’s foreign policy line and echoed his list of foreign policy priorities.
Despite Suga’s continuing support for Abe’s foreign policy, the difference between them is in their ideology and motivations.
While Suga and Abe share a great deal of overlap in their conservative political attitudes, Abe’s revision of Japan’s security policy and his aspiration for constitutional revision were rooted in his neo-conservative ideology. Abe rose to the position of prime minister with the intention of revising pacifist and reactive security policy, challenging the liberal and pacifist strand of Japanese politics. His core supporters raised him as a symbol for revising Japan’s post-war past.
Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. Suga comes from an older generation of conservatives in Japanese politics. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills.
Abe and Suga also differ in their use of foreign policy in relation to the Japanese public, with Abe using an active foreign policy to gain public support. Unusually for a Japanese prime minster, a public opinion survey by the Asahi Shimbun in September 2020 showed that ‘diplomacy and national security’ were among the most popular elements of Abe’s legacy.
Suga’s key policies so far have been limited to domestic issues such as lowering mobile phone fees, abolishing hanko (traditional Japanese contractual stamps) in public administration, expanding public health insurance coverage for fertility treatment and reducing carbon emissions. But whether he likes it or not, Suga will need to develop his own foreign policy strategy to cope with issues that were not resolved during the Abe period. Abe’s active foreign relations were supported by former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat Shotaro Yachi, but Suga’s cabinet lacks this level of expertise. While he lists Abe-like foreign policy objectives, he has not shown a willingness to conduct proactive diplomacy like Abe.
Suga will not change Abe’s stance on nationalistic issues such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Northern Territories, the abduction issue with North Korea and wartime forced labour issues with South Korea. But Suga does need to reconsider practical goals and means to resolve them. Abe was challenged proposing realistic solutions because of his neo-conservative ideology.
Suga has pledged to strengthen US–Japan defence cooperation, but Japan’s spending on expensive US weapons has become a public concern. He will have to consider how to further the alliance on a limited budget.
Since 2017, Japan’s China policy turned to cooperation, led by LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, a pro-China policy leader who played a key role in electing Suga. Nikai will guide Suga’s China policy, but most of the security issues between the two countries remain unresolved.
Suga has emphasised his support for the FOIP, but this is an ambiguous strategy in origin. Policies of cooperation and competition with China coexist, and Japan has limited economic resources to compete with China. Suga can use the FOIP in diplomacy, but its ambiguity makes it an ineffective tool for resolving security tensions.
Suga will promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, but he will need stronger diplomacy to tackle the US–China trade dispute and China’s increasing economic influence in the region.
Suga’s lack of ideology and his focus on domestic policy may weaken his response to the foreign policy challenges that Abe’s left him. Post-war Japan has often elected domestic-oriented prime ministers, and an inactive posture is not unique to Suga. But the regional security environment around Japan will not allow this indefinitely — Japan may be back to reactive diplomacy for the time being, but this period is likely to be short-lived.
*About the author: Toshiya Takahashi is Associate Professor of International Relations at Shoin University, Japan.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum