Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has acknowledged the need for a reset in relations with South Korea but is unlikely to close the trust deficit with Seoul. A diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea will similarly prove elusive, depending more on Pyongyang’s priorities than Tokyo’s. In calls with Australian and Indian leaders, Suga has stressed the importance of the “Quad,” suggesting that he will continue Abe’s work on a regional leadership role for Japan. This is the third in a series of notes looking at what to expect from Suga’s foreign policy. The first looked at how Suga will shape foreign policy and relations with the US. The second considered active debates about Japan’s relationships with China and Russia.
While former prime minister Shinzo Abe spent considerable time on diplomacy with East Asia’s major powers, his greatest foreign policy achievements – and his most significant failure – were in diplomatic overtures with the region’s “middle powers,” particularly with fellow democracies. Although, as noted, Suga confronts mounting uncertainty in Japan’s relations with both the US and China, governments across the region are watching how Suga follows Abe’s efforts in pursuing a regional leadership role for Japan in trade integration, infrastructure investment, supply chain resilience, and political and military cooperation with China’s neighbors.
Suga inherits a relationship with South Korea that is at its lowest point since 1965. The freeze in the relationship, triggered by South Korean court decisions to order Japanese companies to pay former forced laborers and their descendants, revealed a massive trust deficit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s progressive administration and Abe’s conservative administration that both governments widened. Moon’s abandonment of the 2015 “comfort women” agreement made between Abe and Moon’s impeached predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and the open hostility towards the 1965 bilateral basic treaty from Korean progressives, led Tokyo to fear that no agreement with Seoul was safe; Koreans saw Abe’s heavy-handed retaliation to court-ordered asset seizures as part of forced labor cases as proof that Abe was an unrepentant, anti-Korean historical revisionist. Thus, even as the Abe administration advanced a vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and sought closer ties with other democracies, he was pursuing a course of action towards a prosperous Asian democracy that foreclosed deeper cooperation.
The transition from Abe to a new prime minister with less historical baggage may create more room for constructive engagement, but it is unlikely that Suga will deviate from Abe’s hardline approach. In particularly, as chief cabinet secretary Suga already delivered an unambiguous message that the pending liquidation of assets seized from Nippon Steel – awaiting final appeal – would lead to swift retaliation by Japan, which could include the withdrawal of Japan’s ambassador, visa cancellations, trade sanctions, and other actions that could trigger a South Korean response. Although Suga and Moon had a brief phone conversation on Thursday, 24 September, there have been few signs of a shift on the part of the new Japanese government. Following his call with Moon, Suga said that he “strongly urged South Korea to take appropriate measures” regarding the forced labor issue. It is possible that a new US administration could stabilize the Japan-South Korea relationship – as vice president, Joe Biden was active in Northeast Asian diplomacy and his administration would likely prioritize healing the rift between its two allies as part of a broader initiative to rebuild US alliances. However, the trust deficit may defy even a concerted US effort to close it.
Suga may also struggle to break Japan’s stalemate with North Korea. While he has reiterated Abe’s position that he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “without preconditions” to resolve their dispute over Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang, North Korea had expressed little interest in meeting with Abe despite Kim’s meeting other leaders. Whether diplomacy with North Korea advances will likely depend on how Pyongyang responds to economic hardship, the possible change of US administration, and worsening prospects for inter-Korean cooperation, all of which could make Japan a more appealing negotiating partner.
Abe was a long-standing believer in the “Indo-Pacific” as a strategic concept and as prime minister, he strengthened Japan’s relationships with countries across the Southeast and South Asian littoral region. Abe’s globe-trotting personal diplomacy often focused on the region, starting with his visiting every member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2013. Over his nearly eight years in office, meanwhile, the “Quad” of Japan, the US, India, and Australia gradually emerged as a concrete grouping. Military, political, and economic cooperation deepened among the four powers and the group increasingly became a hub for cooperation with some ASEAN member states and extra-regional countries.
It is highly likely that Suga will continue to center Japan’s foreign policy on wielding a regional leadership role and strengthening ties in bilateral and multilateral settings. It is not incidental that Suga’s first phone call with a foreign leader was with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which Chinese official publications said was a reflection of the decline of US military power. It is possible that Morrison could also be the first leader to visit Suga, with a November visit under consideration. On Friday, 25 September, Suga spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and reaffirmed the bilateral Special Strategic and Global Partnership forged by Abe and Modi. As Tokyo reconsiders its relationship with China, the Suga government will rely heavily on Australia and India to both articulate an alternate vision of the region and develop concrete plans for lessening the economic dependence of China’s neighbors on China. Shortly before Suga’s election, for example, the three governments announced a trilateral supply chain resilience initiative to complement individual initiatives to encourage producers to relocate production facilities from China. (Japan, in addition to its new subsidy program, has a similar initiative with ASEAN.) Economic diplomacy will therefore remain a priority, and the Suga government is likely to continue to seek the addition of new members to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP); build on Abe’s “Quality Infrastructure” initiative; and remain invested in the so-called “Osaka track” negotiations focused on convincing more countries to accept “Data Free Flow with Trust” (DFFT). Retaining Toshimitsu Motegi as foreign minister, who has been lead trade negotiator as both foreign minister and economic revitalization minister, will likely mean that economic diplomacy remains central to Japan’s foreign policy. Motegi is working on convening the second meeting of Quad foreign ministers in Tokyo in early October, which could include a meeting with Suga.
Finally, as calls this week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and European Council President Charles Michel suggest, Suga will also build upon Abe’s efforts to build a strategic partnership with Europe, particularly as European countries reconsider their relations with China.