Japan’s ultimate insider faces test navigating US-China feud
TOKYO (Tribune News Service) — A picture of U.S. President Donald Trump beams down from the wall of Yoshihide Suga’s office. The two men are standing side by side in the photo, a token of the longtime Japanese chief Cabinet secretary’s global stature.
The reality is that Suga – the man all but assured to succeed ailing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as premier later this month – has little experience in foreign policy. Abe will be a tough act to follow after he walked a delicate balance between Japan’s biggest trading partner, China, and its only military ally, the U.S.
While Suga has helped Abe craft domestic policies since 2012, his boss is one of the most seasoned leaders on the international stage. Abe has been on good terms with Trump, met Russian President Vladimir Putin more than two dozen times and stood side by side with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in support of multilateral institutions. He doggedly worked to keep relations with traditional rival China calm, professional and stable.
Suga will step into a juggling act with Beijing and Washington that has become ever more challenging. In recent months, the world’s two largest economies have clashed over everything from trade to data security. Meanwhile, voices in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have increasingly called on Japan to take a firmer stand on the side of its security partner.
“In the past year or two, China-Japan relations have been on a positive trajectory,” said Jiang Lifeng, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Japanese Studies. “Of course, with a new successor, there is an element of uncertainty. We will have to see what their attitude is toward the U.S.”
Japan has been hedging its bets. It’s working with Australia and India to build stronger supply chains to counter China’s dominance, according to people in Tokyo and New Delhi with knowledge of the matter. It also took a lead role in pushing for a Group of Seven statement denouncing Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong.
Abe kept diplomacy near the top of his agenda until the coronavirus hit, visiting 80 countries in his first seven years on the job. Little given to rhetoric or grand gestures, Suga’s role was to hold the fort in Tokyo.
There have been times when Suga has jumped into the diplomatic fray. Five years ago, he criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War Two surrender, saying it was anti-Japanese and omitted elements of the neighbors’ postwar reconciliation. Xi presided over a lower-key ceremony Thursday for the 75th anniversary of the war’s end.
“China and Japan are close neighbors. Maintaining long-term peaceful and friendly relations between the two countries is in the interests of the two peoples, and in the interests of maintaining regional and global peace and stability,” Xi said. “Correct handling and deep reflection of Japanese militarist aggression is an important political foundation for establishing and developing bilateral ties.”
The next Japanese leader will also face dissent within the LDP over a state visit by Xi, which would be the first of its kind in about a decade. Some lawmakers want it officially canceled, in protest over issues including China’s incursions into what Japan sees as its territory in the East China Sea.
The Abe government has sidestepped the debate by saying it’s not in a position to arrange such a visit during the pandemic, a view that Suga reiterated this week.
Ties with Washington could largely depend on the U.S. presidential election. Suga, who has built no real personal rapport with the incumbent president, might face renewed pressure in a second Trump term over issues like trade and financial support for U.S. troops in Japan.
If former Vice President Joe Biden wins, Suga could benefit. Unlike Abe, Suga hasn’t made a public visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
Such visits had become a bone of contention with the Obama administration, which saw them as stirring up tensions in the region. Suga has also not devoted days to golfing with Trump.
“Suga might have a better chance at developing a decent relationship with Joe Biden, should the latter win in November,” said Tina Burrett, an associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Abe has cozied up to Trump so much, relations with Biden may have been awkward.”
Abe was the first foreign leader to try to cultivate Trump – visiting him with gifts at Trump Tower in New York ahead of his inauguration. Trump said Abe even nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts with North Korea, and in turn hailed Abe as Japan’s “greatest” leader after a phone call this week.