October 6, 2020


JAPAN: Suga’s first foray into diplomacy highlights foreign policy challenges

BY Tobias Harris

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga welcomed foreign dignitaries for the first time on Tuesday, 6 October when his government hosted the second-ever meeting of foreign ministers from the “Quad” countries: Japan, the US, India, and Australia.
  • While the meeting revealed that Suga is committed to building closer ties with other regional democracies, there were also hints of differing approaches to China.
  • Tokyo has not only been tentatively reopening talks with Beijing but is also increasingly anxious about the US in light of the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and political instability in its only treaty ally.

The Quad foreign ministers’ meeting highlights the extent to which Suga intends to build upon former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s pursuit of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” that rests upon deeper ties between Japan and other major democracies in the region. However, while the four governments discussed coordination on maritime security in the East and South China Seas, pandemic response, and infrastructure investment, only US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was willing to call out China by name in public remarks and the meeting did not produce a joint statement.

Accordingly, although the foreign ministers’ meeting is a step towards the formalization of ties between the four countries – the foreign ministers agreed to convene another summit next year – there are signs that Japan, India, and Australia may not be prepared to go as far as the US in the pursuit of economic decoupling or military containment despite confrontations with China this year. Instead, for the foreseeable future, the Suga administration will continue to prioritize Japan’s relationship with the US but could strengthen hedges against friction with Washington by building stronger relationships with Australia, India, and other regional powers and seeking at least a limited modus vivendi with Beijing.

Tightrope walk with Beijing

In his early remarks on Japan’s policy towards China, Suga’s tone has been measured and largely consistent with Abe’s pursuit of a constructive relationship with Beijing, which was sidetracked by the pandemic. While his government has not reached the point of openly preparing to host Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tokyo – a visit postponed by Covid-19 – LDP Secretary-General and Suga ally Toshihiro Nikai has said he looks forward to arranging the visit. In the meantime, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to visit Tokyo this month for meetings with Suga and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. Meanwhile, the possibility that talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could conclude this year may also give a boost to bilateral ties.

The Suga administration is not necessarily shying away from conflict with Beijing. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, for example, cited China’s maritime activities to suggest on Tuesday the need for more coordination among the Quad defense ministers. The administration is also prepared to invest more in supply chain diversification – including in cooperation with India and Australia – and may be preparing to tighten the visa approval process of Chinese students and researchers to counter espionage, particularly as US and Australian restrictions divert more students to Japan. But Suga may still be trying to balance between strengthening Japan’s ability to counter China’s military and political advances in Asia and reducing its economic dependence on China, while still preserving constructive ties with Beijing and perhaps even serving as an intermediary to reduce tensions between the US and China.

For its part, while Beijing has harshly criticized the Quad as a “exclusive clique” that undermines regional peace and security, Beijing has taken a softer approach to Suga. There are signs, for example, that after a surge in activity around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands earlier this year – including incidents during which Chinese Coast Guard ships gave pursuit to Japanese fishing boats – the Chinese government has been deliberately restrained since Suga took office.

Mounting anxieties about the US

At the same time, despite Suga and Pompeo’s reaffirmation of US-Japan cooperation, there is increasing unease about the bilateral relationship. In the near term, anxieties about the possibility of an outsized demand for host-nation support (HNS) from the Trump administration have led the Suga administration to propose a one-year provisional special measures agreement (SMA) instead of a five-year SMA ahead of the start of preliminary negotiations this month. Prolonged stalemate in negotiations with the US – as seen in SMA talks between the US and South Korea – could have adverse domestic consequences for Suga, and a provisional agreement would be one way to head off friction for the time being. (It is also consistent with how the Japanese government has approached bilateral negotiations with the Trump administration on other issues.)

Beyond the host-nation support talks, however, the Trump administration’s handling of Covid-19 has eroded the standing of the US in the eyes of the Japanese public and prompted concerns among Japanese elites about the ability of the US to manage a crisis. US President Donald Trump’s hospitalization for Covid-19 has been extensively covered in Japan and has occasioned increasingly frank criticism of the US.

The US presidential election is unlikely to ease these concerns. If Trump were reelected, Suga would immediately face pressure to accede to US demands for a significant increase in its HNS contributions – and not on an interim basis. Beyond the cost-sharing talks, as Tuesday’s meetings indicate, the Trump administration’s increasingly sharp-edged attacks on the Chinese Communist Party, not necessarily echoed by the Japanese officials, could complicate US-Japan cooperation. However, even if former Vice President Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, Tokyo may still be uneasy, both because conservative Japanese leaders have long believed that Democratic administrations have been too deferential to China and because of concerns that domestic US political instability may make it difficult for future administrations to sustain US security commitments.

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