Foreign Policy Program of the New Japanese Prime Minister

No matter who wins in the US presidential election, the majority believe that the hegemony competition between the United States and China will continue. In such a complex strategic environment will Japan be able to minimize economic damage from the US-China conflict as much as possible, while managing concerns with China, including the Senkaku islands issue, by strategically promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)? This will be the most critical diplomatic challenge the Suga administration has to tackle, writes Taisuke Abiru, Senior Research Fellow, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

On September 16, 2020, the Abe long-term administration, which has the longest consecutive tenure in Japan’s constitutional history for 7years and 8 months, has finally come to an end, and Yoshihide Suga has become the successor prime minister. What will the new Suga administration’s foreign policy program look like?
 
Prime Minister Suga was involved in a series of diplomacy under the Abe administration as Chief Cabinet Secretary. In short, the foreign policy program of the new Suga administration will be to inherit and facilitate that of the Abe administration. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and the head of National Security Secretariat (NSS) Shigeru Kitamura have been reappointed from the Abe administration. Their stay suggests the continuation of Japan’s foreign policy and national security policy. The essence could be seen in Prime Minister Suga’s following statement at his first press conference after taking the office.

In the fields of diplomacy and security, as the environment surrounding Japan has become more severe, it is necessary to develop policies based on the functioning Japan-US alliance. We would like to strategically promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) to protect national interests and also build stable relations with neighboring countries including China and Russia.

Aiming for the total settlement of postwar diplomacy, we will do our utmost to resolve the abduction issue (with North Korea).

The Abe administration strengthened Japan-U.S. alliance by enacting security-related laws that allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense in a limited manner against the backdrop of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the growing military might of China and US’s declining presence in the region. It advocated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative with the three pillars of (1) promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, free trade, etc., (2) pursuit of economic prosperity and (3) commitment for peace and stability and also promoted the quadrilateral security dialogue, or Quad with the US, Australia and India as core part of FOIP initiative. 

Japan’s FOIP initiative and Quad’s security dialogue has been promoted with China in mind, which has been activating its maritime expansion into the East China Sea and the South China Sea while increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, including Southeast Asia, through its flagship geoeconomic project, the Best and Road Initiative (BRI).

Regarding Quad’s security dialogue in the Indo-Pacific, there are strong voices especially in the United States that it should be developed into a formal alliance organization in the future that could be called the Asian version of NATO. Recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has mentioned that possibility.  In addition, as will be mentioned later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who came to Japan to attend the Japan-U.S.-Australia-India Foreign Minister’s Meeting on September 6, said in an interview with Nikkei newspaper, “If we institutionalize cooperation among the four countries, we can enter into the creation of a genuine security framework. We can discuss economic, rule of law, intellectual property and diplomatic relations in this framework. It will be broader than just military.”

The US Trump administration has started trade war with China as part of the battle for hegemony in high-tech fields including digital area.

Furthermore, the breakout of COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this US-China competition. Senior US government officials’ statements on Asian version of NATO should be understood against the backdrop of this trend.

However, it is worth noting that Prime Minister Suga has made clear his negative view on the creation of the Asian version of NATO. On September 12, at a public debate hosted by the Japan National Press Club with former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, the two rivals for the LDP presidential election, Suga commented on the Asian version of NATO as follows:

The situation in Europe, where NATO-type security alliances continue to work, and the current situation in Asia are very different. Especially, in the midst of the US-China conflict, the Asian version of NATO has no choice but to become an anti-China network. Compare to Europe, the countries in the Asian-Pacific region are still in the development stage, and their politics, economy and security are also very different. The creation of the Asian version of NATO may divide regional countries into enemies and allies.

Japan should aim to strategically promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific based on the Japan-US alliance, which is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy. ASEAN countries cannot participate in the Asian version of NATO.

The alliance with the United States has been the basis of Japan’s diplomatic and security policy, while China has overtaken the United States to become Japan’s largest trading partner.
If the US-China relations continue to deteriorate and economic decoupling between the two countries accelerates, it must make a negative impact on Japanese economy.

Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative advocated by the Abe administration doesn’t exclude the possibility of cooperation with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), let say, a joint investments in infrastructure-related projects in third countries if they are in line with international standards such as openness, transparency, economic efficiency and financial soundness of the target country. In this sense, Japan’s FOIP is by no means aimed at containing China. Actually, Xi Jinping, President of People’s Republic of China would have visited Japan as a state guest in April this year without the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.

No matter which candidate wins, Donald Trump of Republican Party or Joe Biden of Democratic Party, in the US presidential election in November this year, the majority believe that the hegemony competition in the high-tech field between the United States and China will continue. In such a complex strategic environment will Japan be able to minimize economic damage from the US-China conflict as much as possible, while managing concerns with China, including the Senkaku islands issue, by strategically promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) ? This will be the most critical diplomatic challenge the Suga administration has to tackle.

Immediately after taking the office on September 16, Prime Minister Suga has been holding telephone talks with leaders of major countries in a quick succession. He held telephone talks with Scot Morrison, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, with Donald Trump, President of the United States on September 20 and with Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India on September 25. At each summit talk they confirmed the importance of realizing the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. 

Prime Minister Suga also talked on telephone with Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany on September 22, with Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK on September 23 and with Emmanuel Macron, President of France on October 5.

Since last year, the UK and France have, one after another, announced to strengthen their military presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Earlier this year Germany has also adapted guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region. The Suga administration will explore the possibility of cooperation with European countries toward the realization of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative.

Prime Minister Suga held a telephone talks with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China on September 25 after finishing summit talks with all the leaders of Quad countries. According to Japanese government’s announcement, President Xi expressed his willingness to continue developing the relationship between Japan and China. Prime Minister Suga stated that a stable relationship between Japan and China is extremely important not only the two countries, but also for the region and the international community, while conveying his hope that both countries would fulfill their responsibilities. In addition to pending bilateral issues, the leaders discussed the challenges facing the region and international communities, including the issue of North Korea.

Prime Minister Suga’s in-person diplomatic debut was also related with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). On September 6 the Second Japan-U.S.-Australia-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was held in Tokyo. Prior to this meeting, Prime Minister Suga received a courtesy call from U.S Secretary of States Mike Pompeo, Foreign Minister of Australia Marise Payne and Foreign Minister of India Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. He also received a courtesy call from U.S. Secretary of States Pompeo separately.

Regarding the Second Japan-U.S.-Australia-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, according to Japanese government’s announcement, the four ministers affirmed the importance of broadening cooperation with more countries for the realization of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as the vison serves for the peace and prosperity of the region. In this regard, the four Ministers reaffirmed their strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN-led regional architecture. They also affirmed their full support for the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. They also welcomed proactive efforts by other countries including those in Europe toward a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Suga visited Vietnam and Indonesia around mid-October in his first official overseas trip after taking office. Strengthening relationship with countries of Southeast Asian region connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean holds an important key in strategically promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative.
Judging from these series of diplomatic activities, it can be said that the strategic promotion of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) on the one hand and the establishment of stable relations with China on the other hand will be the two central issues of foreign policy program of the Suga administration.

Finally, I would like to mention Japan-Russia relations. Prime Minister Suga and President of Russian Federation Vladimir Putin held a telephone summit talk on September 29. According to Japanese government’s announcement, the two leaders reaffirmed the Singapore agreement of November 2018 to accelerate peace treaty negotiations based on the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration of 1956. The two leaders agreed on continuing talks, including on the issue of concluding a peace treaty, and also on developing the overall relationship between Japan and Russia in a wide range of fields, including politics, economy and culture.

This summit talk confirmed the Suga administration’s readiness to try to build stable relations with Russia with resolving territorial issue and signing a peace treaty over a medium-to long-term time frame. 
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