On September 16, Suga Yoshihide was designated as the 99th Prime Minister of Japan, succeeding the nation’s longest continually serving prime minister ever, Abe Shinzo. What can we expect from the new prime minister? SANO Kentaro reports.
At a press conference on August 28, Abe Shinzo announced his resignation as prime minister, his chronic ulcerative colitis having taken a turn for the worse.
“I have made the determination that, as I have become unable to confidently live up to the mandate from the people, I should not continue in the position of prime minister,” an emotional Abe told the watching nation.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) accepted Abe’s resignation and began the process to elect a new party president. On September 14, LDP lawmakers and regional representatives elected Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, who had vowed to continue Abe’s policies, including his signature economic policy “Abenomics,” to be the new LDP president. Suga won 377 of 534 votes to beat his two contenders in the party election, Kushida Fumio, a former foreign minister, and Ishiba Shigeru, a former LDP secretary-general and defense minister.
It was a formality when, on September 16, Suga was designated by Diet resolution as the 99th Prime Minister of Japan.
During the LDP presidential election, the monthly current affairs magazine Bungeishunju (October issue) published the aforementioned three candidates’ written plans for the new administration, if elected.
In an article titled “The COVID-19 National Crisis: A Political Vacuum Is Impermissible,” Suga stressed in his article that as far as “political responsibility” is concerned, the “priority is protecting the lives and health of all citizens” and “achieving a compatibility between preventing the spread of infections and socio-economic activities.” Citing specifically “regional revitalization” centered on “tourism” and “agricultural reform,” he demonstrated a stance of prioritizing regional economies, which account for 70 percent of Japan’s total consumption. However, the reality is that politics, business, and investment in Japan are concentrated in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area, as is the infrastructure that underpins them.
Suga also called for the promotion of “digitalization,” in light of the fact that in the second supplementary budget he had secured a budget (50 billion yen) for installing optical fibers nationwide. The aim is to “equip many regions with important infrastructure needed to do teleworking as well as conduct medical and educational activities remotely.” The promotion of “digitalization,” which is an indispensable infrastructure today more than ever, to every corner of the country will be the first step toward rectifying the concentration of business and investment in Tokyo and realizing regional revitalization.A measure of progress has been made in research and development on “digitalization” and a variety of experiments have been conducted, but these have yet to bear fruit owing to a lack of real progress in bold regulatory reform and the creation of frameworks for its real-world application. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is about to change this situation. Many citizens have accepted the government’s declaration of a state of emergency and request for self-restraint, and are already trying to respond proactively to the new normal, “with Corona,” based on the premise that there will be no return to the time before the COVID-19 outbreak. COVID-19 brought about an even more dramatic change. Companies and workers who had been indifferent when the government called for staggered work hours, telework, and work style reform in the past are now active proponents, trying to reap the benefits in the midst of adverse circumstances.
On September 23, Prime Minister Suga demonstrated an awareness of the current circumstances, saying, “In the recent response to the novel coronavirus disease, a variety of issues related to digitalization have been revealed, including delays in digitalization within the national and local governments and lack of personnel, inefficient government caused by insufficient links among different systems, and deteriorated services for residents due to complicated procedures and delays in disbursements, as well as delays in the digitalization of the private sector and society as a whole.” He went on, “This administration will tear down bureaucratic sectionalism and boldly implement reforms to fundamentally resolve these longstanding issues. We will establish an agency in charge of digital transformation to bring a breakthrough in those efforts.”
On the same day, Prime Minister Suga set out the basic directions by the end of the year, with the necessary bills to be submitted to the next ordinary session of the Diet in January 2021. The digital agency is being positioned as a permanent, rather than limited-term, institution, and has the potential to significantly transform Japan’s economy and society.
Suga stresses the importance of acting “with a speed that has never been seen before” not only when establishing the digital agency but also when implementing policies. This is not surprising coming from a leader who has acknowledged that Japan is lagging behind.
Prime Minister Suga had the following to say about the major direction of domestic affairs in the aforementioned plan for the new administration: “‘Covering the people’s keep’ is my job. It is my hope that we can cope with the coronavirus completely, revitalize Japan for the post-coronavirus era, and take this country forward.”
This is a continuation of the legacy promoted by the Abe Administration of “achieving a compatibility between preventing the spread of infections and socio-economic activities.”
Diplomacy is regarded as a major future challenge for Prime Minister Suga, successor to Japan’s longest continually serving prime minister ever. Abe Diplomacy, a “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map,” lasted more than eight years and left a more significant mark on the country than any previous administration. It restored the relationship of trust between Japan and the United States that had been damaged by the Democratic Party of Japan administration that immediately preceded it, and set deteriorated Japan-China relations on a path toward recovery. In economic diplomacy, Abe spearheaded the conclusion of TPP11, which led to the conclusion of the Japan-EU EPA. In security, he advocated Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), establishing a clear direction.
Acknowledging that his lack of experience as foreign minister or defense minister prevents him from following Abe’s lead, Suga writes in Bungeishunju, “The cruel reality of foreign relations is that our neighbors are sizing us up, thinking that ‘Japan is nothing to be afraid of when they are distant from the US,’ and ‘we have to further strengthen the Japan–US Alliance.’”
On October 6, Prime Minister Suga received a courtesy call from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the first senior foreign official to meet Suga in person since he took office. The two agreed to strengthen the Japan-US alliance—toward the goal of realizing the FOIP vision—but the future course of Japan-US relations will remain unclear until the new administration in the United States has taken office. In the meantime, Prime Minister Suga visited Vietnam and Indonesia on his first tour abroad. This was a continuation of Abe Diplomacy.
At a summit meeting with Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc on October 19, Prime Minister Suga said that Vietnam is an important partner in the realization of FOIP and Japan would like to work in cooperation to contribute to peace and prosperity in the region. Prime Minister Phuc responded that he would like to work closely with Japan.
Suga later gave a lecture at the Vietnam-Japan University (VJU), which is a symbol of friendship between Japan and Vietnam. He began by saying that ASEAN and Japan are equal partners and friends, having a “heart-to-heart” relationship.
This “heart-to-heart” relationship was the key word in the so-called Fukuda Doctrine speech given by then Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo in the Philippines on August 18, 1977, on his visit to Southeast Asia, and became the cornerstone of the Japan-ASEAN relationship of trust.
At that time, Fukuda said:
First, Japan, a nation committed to peace, rejects the role of a military power, and on that basis is resolved to contribute to the peace and prosperity of Southeast Asia, and of the world community.
Second, Japan, as a true friend of the countries of Southeast Asia, will do its best for consolidating the relationship of mutual confidence and trust based on “heart-to-heart” understanding with these countries, in wide-ranging fields covering not only political and economic areas but also social and cultural areas.
Third, Japan will be an equal partner of ASEAN and its member countries, and cooperate positively with them in their own efforts to strengthen their solidarity and resilience, together with other nations of the like mind outside the region, while aiming at fostering a relationship based on mutual understanding with the nations of Indochina, and will thus contribute to the building of peace and prosperity throughout Southeast Asia.
In his address, Prime Minister Suga mentioned the following key words in relation to the Japan-ASEAN relationship: digital technology and the resilience of supply chains, sharing fundamental principles such as the rule of law, openness, freedom, transparency and inclusiveness.
The former refers to promoting the “digitalization of our [Japan-ASEAN’s] economies and societies and the enhancement of digital connectivity,” as well as to “further strengthen[ing] cooperation with ASEAN to increase the resilience of supply chains and build economies in Asia that are resilient to crises.” The latter refers to the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP),” which ASEAN adopted at the Regional Forum meetings in Bangkok in 2019. In essence, this is ASEAN’s own basic security policy, which has much in common with the FOIP.
Prime Minister Suga said, “Unfortunately, in this region, developments contrary to the rule of law and openness upheld by the ASEAN Outlook have been unfolding in the South China Sea. Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Japan has been consistently supporting the preservation of the rule of law in seas. I would like to reemphasize the importance for all parties concerning the South China Sea issues to work towards the peaceful resolution of disputes based on international law instead of resorting to force or coercion.”
Suga continued, “Japan has provided patrol vessels and equipment for maritime safety to Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries. Japan has also been advancing human resource development through training in, and dispatch of experts to, coastal nations along sea lanes including Indonesia and Malaysia. Japan will spare no effort to offer cooperation for this purpose.”
Prime Minister Suga informed Vietnam Prime Minister Phuc of his full support for AOIP, to which Prime Minister Phuc replied that he supports cooperation between AOIP and FOIP and will continue to work together in the run-up to the ASEAN Summit.
At the Japan-Indonesia Summit Meeting the following day, Prime Minister Suga said regarding the AOIP led by Indonesia, “Japan fully supports the Outlook [AOIP],” while Indonesian President Joko Widodo made reference to the synergy between AOIP and FOIP in the Indo-Pacific region and hoped that ASEAN and Japan would work together in response.
Prime Minister Suga has established a domestic administration with its own policy approaches while retaining key members of the Abe Cabinet. The Suga Administration must promote a rules-based free-trade framework, closely monitoring the foreign policy set out by the next US administration. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which India has declined to join, has been agreed upon, but challenges remain.
This winter the administration has to deal with seasonal influenza in addition to COVID-19, the postponed G7, G20, and APEC online meetings, and the regular Diet session running from January 2021 until June. Further, it has to deal with the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in the summer, and a snap general election in the fall when the term of office of the House of Representatives expires.
The Suga administration has its work cut out “covering the people’s keep.”
SANO Kentaro is a freelance writer.
Note: This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of the Japan Journal.