Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has already selected a new party leader, who in turn has formed a new cabinet and started functioning as the 99th prime minister of Japan after replacing Shinzo Abe, who earlier had stepped down citing his poor health. Japan’s new leader Yoshihde Suga served in the cabinet of Abe throughout his long tenure as Chief Cabinet Secretary, a post considered to be the most important in the cabinet and hence he is already well aware of all the details of party politics in Japan. Two of his rivals in the leadership race did not stand any chance in the unequal competition; as in the backdoor maneuvering leaders of five out of seven LDP factions had thrown their dices for Suga long before the start of voting. Suga, incidentally, does not belong to any faction. By choosing someone with no faction loyalty, each of LDP’s five factions probably had been hoping for strengthening their chances in getting bigger prizes in the new cabinet and thus influencing national politics from their respective standing.
Suga’s choice had been unique in two senses. First is obviously his non faction affiliation. However, serving in the key position in Abe cabinet throughout the full tenure, Suga had definitely proved to be more closer to the outgoing prime minister than to any faction leader and he is thus seen by many as a leader who would continue the unfinished tasks of Abe administration. Another unique feature is his origin. Suga did not enter politics wearing the shoes of his predecessors from the family lineage, which for many of the top LDP leaders is a common practice. His humble family background runs contrary to those of his fellow journeyman politicians in the party. However, he is not the only example in the recent past.
In 1970s Japan had seen a strong leader emerging from nowhere and eventually making a breakthrough well up to the top position. However, that experience also had left a sour taste as Kakuei Tanaka, after being forced out of office due to his involvement in a number of corruption scandals including the famous Lockheed case of early 1970s. Tanaka, coming from a humble family background, continued playing the role of a king maker long after his downfall. He was seen as a master player capable of exploiting the inner rifts within the party for strengthening his position. In contrast, Suga has kept himself out of faction rivalries and had been loyal to his predecessor. So, how is he going to handle the rivalries within the party is yet to be tested. His first initiatives around cabinet formation and policy announcements had shown that instead of confronting head on with faction leaders, he would rather go slowly in appeasing all as much as possible. His long tenure as Chief Cabinet Secretary in Abe cabinet will definitely come as a valuable experience in this regard.
Serving as the Chief Cabinet Secretary for most of the time in the past also means his lack of international exposure and thus less experience in dealing with pressing security and diplomatic issues. Here too he made a slow start; culminating eventually in accelerating the process of establishing rapport with the leaders of Japan’s important partners.
The first head of the government Suga had a telephone discussion with was his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. This was promptly followed on the same day by his telephone conversation with Donald Trump. Suga and Trump agreed to further strengthen Japan-US security alliance and work together to tackle corona virus. The 25-minute telephone conversation last Sunday also touched few other issues like the situation surrounding North Korea and the importance of pursuing their share vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, as well as strengthening the global economy. Incidentally they did not touch thorny issues like Trump’s claim that Japan was not contributing enough for maintaining US military presence in the country. Neither the excessive US military presence in Okinawa was on the agenda. So, the first conversation was more like a congratulatory gesture on part of the US president and a reassurance from Suga about the continuity of the policies of his predecessor. In coming days he is going to face a tougher US president, more because of the upcoming presidential election. As a result, his skill in diplomacy will need more time to be judged and assessed.
Suga since then had a number of telephone conversations with other important world and regional leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as well as South Korean President Moon Jae In. His telephone conversation with Moon is seen by many a breakthrough, as the two neighboring countries did not have exchange of opinion among their leaders almost for nine months amid a diplomatic feud over Japan’s export restriction and South Korea’s decision to penalize Japanese companies for failing to compensate for what Seoul claims to be wartime labor. However, this presumably new start gives a clear signal that Suga is probably not beholden to Abe policies on all pressing issues.
As for speaking to Chinese leadership, Suga had taken more time arranging a telephone conversation. The Chinese at last had given a green signal and he is scheduled to have the summit level telephone discussion with Xi Jing Ping in coming days.
All these involvements suggest he is willing to fill up the gap in his expertise in diplomacy by getting involved in direct negotiations with world leaders. But how far he will be able to sell Japan’s position to them is another matter that we might have to wait for a while to see the results.
Another headache he had inherited from his predecessor is the 2020 Olympic Games. Suga is determined to hold it within the newly scheduled time frame, knowing perfectly well that a further postponement might mean no 2020 Games at all; which definitely will have a bad impact on his performance. To make sure that Olympic can be held in time by containing successfully the spread of corona virus, he also had telephone discussion with Thomas Bach, President of International Olympic Committee (IOC). The two agreed to cooperate in whatever way possible for the Olympics to go ahead.
However, here the ground is a bit slippery for Suga, as everything depends not on Japan neither on IOC exclusively. If the corona virus continues to dominate other regions of the world, Suga would have no luck in getting the Olympics as scheduled. So, the only option for him probably is to keep fingers crossed and hope for the vaccine to arrive in time.
(Tokyo, September 24, 2020)