Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.10.27

Why did Suga choose Vietnam and Indonesia for his first official trip as prime minister?

the japan times on october 15, 2020

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. Southeast Asia

When invited to a private Sunday lunch on Oct. 4, I never dreamt I would soon be advising him on foreign policy. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, to my great surprise, appointed me on Oct. 13, together with five other experts, as a special adviser to his Cabinet. With that said, I will still be myself and my contrarian writing style will not change.

It was at the Prime Minister’s Office where I learned Suga had publicly spoke of his planned visits to Vietnam and Indonesia next week. During his first official trip overseas as prime minister, Suga is reportedly scheduled to meet with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Japanese and foreign journalists started speculating as to why Suga would visit those two nations in his first official tour abroad? Why not start with Washington, Beijing or Seoul? How significant is his first overseas trip and how successful will it be? Although I have no inside information that allows me to answer those questions with complete accuracy, here are some of my personal observations.

Why not Washington?

Since 1945, visiting Washington has been one of the top priorities for every new prime minister in Japan. In the year 2020, however, that may not be the case. Amid the American election cycle and never-ending coronavirus pandemic, the best choice for a visit now is not the United States.

Tokyo, particularly as of late, has also taken the official position that Japan will always seeks to promote the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, including the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and peaceful settlement of disputes, by building a stable relationship with its neighbors. Such neighbors also implicitly mean China and the two Koreas.

No possibility for visiting China or South Korea

Neither Beijing nor Seoul, however, would be a priority, either. Can Suga visit Beijing now? It would be “politically incorrect” given the current circumstances surrounding Japan-China bilateral relations. Even a once-planned state visit by President Xi Jinping has been virtually put on hold for the time being.

Visiting Seoul would be political suicide, too. On Oct. 13, Kyodo News reported “a trilateral summit between Japan, South Korea and China most likely will not be held this year as Tokyo has given notice that Suga will not attend without concessions from Seoul in a feud over compensation for wartime labor.” This says it all.

Why Vietnam and Indonesia

A natural choice for Suga is Southeast Asia. Conventional journalistic wisdom is that visiting ASEAN member states come as Japan seeks to “strengthen ties with countries in the region amid growing tensions between its main security ally the United States and its biggest trading partner, China.” It’s a very commonsensical approach.

With that said, this argument does not explain Suga’s planned visits to only Indonesia and Vietnam and not other equally important ASEAN nations. There must be reasons for this. Some conventional wisdom suggests “Vietnam is this year’s ASEAN chair, and Indonesia is a member of the Group of 20 major economies.” Are those the only reasons? Hardly.

Indonesia and the U.S.

While Prime Minister Suga is visiting Jakarta, Indonesia’s Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto will be in the United States for a working visit between Oct. 15 and 19 upon an invitation from his U.S. counterpart, Mark Esper. Is this a sheer coincidence? Probably. Or is it part of some concerted behind-the-scenes effort? Probably not.

His visit to Washington is particularly significant because over the past two decades Mr. Subianto has reportedly been twice denied entry to the United States for alleged human rights violations. Washington now seems to be willing to look the other way on questions pertaining to Subianto’s past to advance closer bilateral defense cooperation with Indonesia.

Vietnam and the U.S.

Indonesia is not alone. On Sept. 23, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs and the Vietnamese vice minister of foreign affairs reportedly met online “to discuss bilateral security cooperation at the eleventh U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue.”

Topics in the meeting covered security cooperation, defense trade, maritime security and peacekeeping, among others. The dialogue took place less than a month before Suga’s visit. Is this another coincidence? Maybe it is, but it also should bee seen as part of a series of renewed U.S. efforts to strengthen defense ties with ASEAN members.

Singapore and the U.S.

A week earlier, the U.S. acting under secretary of defense for policy visited Singapore and with his Singaporean counterpart, jointly chaired the 11th Singapore-U.S. Strategic Security Policy Dialogue. Last year the two nations extended their 1990 defense agreement by another 15 years to 2035. Washington’s efforts in the area will most likely continue.

As a matter of fact, China’s People’s Liberation Army accused a U.S. warship last week of trespassing into Chinese territorial waters near the Paracel Islands during the latest freedom of navigation operation by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. aims to continue defying China’s claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. intention cannot be mistaken.

Good timing for a first tour

This is the regional political and military environment that awaits Suga’s first overseas trip. The vision of FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific) is not an exclusive international military order. Rather, it provides a basis for a more stable and prosperous arena in East, Southeast and South Asia as a whole. The timing of Suga’s visit is perfect.

Unlike the United States, Japan’s efforts to enhance the vision of FOIP is more focused on the areas of economic, cultural or law enforcement activities. Prime Minister Suga’s first trip overseas makes perfect sense to me. I would have advised him to do the same if I had been appointed a special adviser a month earlier.

What I found in the Prime Minister’s Office the other day is that Japan’s foreign policy decision making process seems to have gone back to a state of “normalcy” — in the good sense — where leading officials from relevant ministries support the prime minister in the good-old bottom-up style.

This may mean that I will have chances to directly inform the prime minister when I think the Foreign Ministry is taking a wrong course of action. While respecting the ordinary chain of command when it comes to foreign policy making, I plan to provide the prime minister with the best possible “second opinion” advice on foreign affairs.