Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.09.30

Japan's foreign policy: What's next after Shinzo Abe's exit?

the japan times on September 8, 2020

National Security

Everybody seemed to know the result even before the game began.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party formally began its extraordinary presidential election on Tuesday to choose a successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

According to projections by the Japanese media, incumbent Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will most likely become the next Prime Minister of Japan. Suga has reportedly been endorsed by five out of seven factions or policy groups inside the LDP.

This, of course, may not be the endgame.

Neither of two other candidates, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, seem to give up. Even though a “Suga administration” is likely to emerge from
the election, its fate is tenuous. Should he fail to call a snap election this October, he may end up becoming a caretaker prime minister just for a year.

While all eyes are on the internal politicking of the LDP, what is concerning is the foreign and national security policies of the next administration. Although all three candidates served under the Abe administration, what, if any, are the differences among them on foreign policy? Here’s a quick rundown of their geopolitical views:

Suga: Maintain Tokyo’s emphasis on the Japan-U.S. alliance. While promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, Suga wants to establish stable relations with neighbors as China. He also pledged to focus on the issues of Japanese abductees in North Korea.

Ishiba: Uphold and develop the strategy of FOIP. While enhancing the effectiveness of Japan-U.S. relations, Ishiba suggests creating an East Asian version of a NATO-like alliance mechanism. The former defense chief says he’ll take the initiative to solve the abduction issue by opening liaison offices in Tokyo and Pyongyang.

Kishida: Bring the divided international community together by utilizing Japan’s soft power such as science, technology, culture and art. The former foreign minister says he will step up efforts to be part of the rulemaking process in the international community, including establishing targets for sustainable economic development.

Although the three candidates have similar views on foreign affairs, they differ from each other in detail.

What is most striking is not what they have already stated, but what they would not officially discuss — namely their policies on China, Russia and South Korea, chiefly because of the sensitivity of the issues and for negotiation purposes.

Any way out for Japan-Russia negotiations?

The Asahi Shimbun editorial on Sept. 7 criticized the Abe administration’s negotiating style with Russia as “too naive.” It contends, “Without listening to experts, Abe hastened to make unprincipled concessions with no fruits and leaving heavy debts behind. The next administration must review this failure and make a fresh start.”

It is easy to criticize, but difficult to implement and produce results. If you listen to fundamentalist Russia-hands, they will only recommend you stick to the principles and to not give in. If you do not move, however, nothing will happen. It was as simple as that.

Abe tried to convince President Vladimir Putin to make a strategic judgment that there would be a day when Beijing poses a strategic threat to Moscow in the future.

The Russians, unfortunately, were not ready because they failed to improve relations with the West. Until then, Tokyo can wait because Abe made no unprincipled concessions.

Will China take a softer line towards Japan?

The Mainichi Shimbun’s editorial on Sept. 3 claims that “Abe’s vision on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) to confront China under close coordination with the U.S., Australia and India, has failed to maintain the difficult balance between deterring China in the security arena and befriending China economically.”

But wait. When it comes to strategic judgment, what matters most is geopolitical calculations. Economic rationale is only valid during peace time. The relationship among Japan, China and the U.S. is asymmetrical. Unfortunately, Japan-China relations are heavily dependent on relations between the U.S. and China. Tokyo need not and should not keep such balance between Beijing and Washington.

How will Seoul react?

The Asahi editorial on Sept. 3 also blames Abe, saying that, “After reaching an agreement on ‘comfort women’ with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the Abe administration came into sharp
collision with the Moon Jae-in administration, which could endanger the U.S.-Asia strategy based on the alliance with Tokyo and Seoul.”

On the contrary, it is President Moon Jae-in who truly endangered the U.S. policy toward Asia. The Moon
administration is determined to change South Korea’s foreign policy. Seoul is homing in on its traditional balancing strategy and, unfortunately, the days of a U.S.-Japan-South Korea tripartite anti-communist alliance are over.

What will the Suga administration’s foreign policy look like?

Suga, whether he likes it or not, will have to succeed much of Abe’s foreign policy while refurbishing parts of it.

The fact remains that the foreign policy Abe pursued is one of the few realistic options available for Japan to cope with the strategic transformation in the 21st century for East Asia.

Suga may not seem to have as much foreign policy experience as Abe does. That said, we should not underestimate Suga, because, as the No. 2 man in the Abe administration, he has been involved in
every major foreign policy decision made by Abe for the past seven years and eight months.