Japan’s new prime minister won’t have the luxury of enjoying his assumption of power for too long.
Yoshihide Suga has won a commanding victory in the leadership election of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). When he is confirmed later in the week as prime minister, Suga will inherit an in-tray of daunting foreign policy challenges. He must also dispel serious doubts as to whether he has the leadership qualities to tackle them.
A glance at the map of Northeast Asia is a sufficient reminder of Japan’s precarious security situation. To the southeast lies an increasingly belligerent China. To the east is nuclear-armed North Korea. And to the north is Russia, which regularly sends its strategic bombers to menacingly circle Japan.
This rough neighbourhood is hardly new. Yet, what has made the security environment especially severe in recent years has been the shift in the balance of power towards China and the US’s relative decline. This trend has accelerated under the wayward leadership of US President Donald Trump, but it was already evident prior to his arrival in the White House and will continue after his departure.
In response to this insecurity, Japan has taken a more proactive stance on foreign and security policy. This marks a change from Cold War days when Japan was able to depend almost exclusively on its US ally.
This new strategy was implemented by the government of Shinzō Abe, who returned to office in December 2012 and became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister before announcing his resignation due to ill health in August 2020.
The Three Arrows of Japan’s Security Policy
As with Abe’s better-known ‘Abenomics’ policy to revive the economy, this strategy can be thought of as featuring three arrows. First, Japan has sought to increase the capabilities of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and to reduce the restrictions imposed on their use by Japan’s post-war constitution. Second, the alliance with the US has been reinforced. And third, Japan has developed relations with new security partners.
It should be made clear that the first and third of these ‘arrows’ are not designed to replace the US alliance. Rather, they are intended to strengthen it by making Japan a more valuable ally for Washington.
Abe is generally seen as having done a good job in delivering this strategy. Defence spending has gradually increased, reaching a record of 5.31 trillion yen ($48.5 billion) in fiscal 2020. Abe also removed the restriction on collective self-defence, meaning that the SDF can now use force when a foreign country in a close relationship with Japan comes under attack.
With the US, Abe succeeded in ensuring that the worst excesses of Trump’s foreign policy were directed elsewhere and that he did not order any troop withdrawals from Japan. This was largely achieved through sycophancy, including Abe’s agreement to nominate Trump for a Nobel peace prize.
As for building closer relations with other partners, Abe’s record was more mixed. He used the visibility he achieved through frequent overseas trips and longevity in office to strengthen security ties with several key countries, including India and Australia.
By contrast, relations with South Korea proved disastrous. As a democracy and US ally, South Korea is Japan’s most natural partner in the region. Yet, under Abe’s leadership, relations between Tokyo and Seoul plunged to icy depths due to disagreements over history.
At the same time as treating South Korea as a quasi-adversary, Abe pursued an ill-fated rapprochement with Russia. This entailed 11 visits to Russia between April 2013 and September 2019, as well as the start of security talks in the two-plus-two format that is usually reserved for close partners. Additionally, Japan was the only G7 country not to join the UK in expelling Russian intelligence officers following the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in March 2018.
These efforts brought Japan no closer to a resolution of the territorial dispute over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands. All that was achieved was to raise doubts among Western countries about Japan’s reliability as a security partner.
Suga’s Looming Security Challenges
Taking over from Abe, Suga has a detailed blueprint to follow. Yet, this does not mean that things will be easy.
Regarding the first ‘arrow’, it is questionable how long Japan’s defence capabilities can continue to grow while the economy remains stagnant. In this respect, it is notable that Japan’s GDP shrank by an annualised 7.1% in the last quarter of 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
There is also the issue that increased capabilities are sure to draw an angry response from regional neighbours and domestic critics. This is especially true of Japan’s likely purchase of strike missiles with the capacity to hit military targets in neighbouring states. This policy has been promoted within the LDP as a means of expanding Japan’s defence options against enemy missiles. A decision is expected by the end of the year.
The second ‘arrow’ of relations with the US will also be a challenge. Suga takes office less than 50 days before a bitterly divisive US election. Japan’s new leader will need to cultivate relations with Trump while keeping in mind that the current occupant of the White House may soon be packing his bags.
Additional problems include the relocation of the Futenma US Marine Corps Air Station to a less populated area of Okinawa Island. This plan was long ago agreed with the US but faces fervent opposition from those who wish to see the base entirely removed from the island.
On top of this, the US and Japan are due to begin negotiations on the financial contribution that Tokyo makes towards the cost of US troops stationed in Japan. These are expected to be difficult, not least because former US National Security Advisor John Bolton has revealed that Trump is aiming for a 400% increase on what Tokyo currently pays.
Lastly, with the third ‘arrow’, Suga needs to ensure that the progress achieved by Abe in relations with new security partners is not lost. He will also have to repair Japan’s tattered relations with South Korea and walk back some of the most ill-considered elements of Abe’s Russia policy.
Right Person for the Job?
In tackling this agenda, Suga has some advantages. Principally, unlike Abe, Suga does not have a reputation as an apologist for Japanese imperialism. This should make relations with South Korea somewhat smoother. Additionally, while Abe was devoted to improving relations with Russia in a futile attempt to complete the life’s work of his late father – who served as foreign minister during the 1980s – Suga will be able to make a more objective judgement of the merits of friendship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
However, these strengths are outweighed by Suga’s obvious weaknesses. Following a career exclusively focused on domestic politics, he lacks international experience. He is also poorly equipped to cultivate personal relations with foreign leaders since he is not fluent in English and is known more for his sullen demeanour than for any charm or charisma.
Another problem is that he enters office in a weak position. He has never been popular with the public and owes his resounding victory in the leadership election to the fact that the party opted for a curtailed election, which excluded the LDP’s one million rank-and-file members. The purported reason for limiting the voting to LDP parliamentarians and delegates from local chapters was to avoid disruption during the coronavirus pandemic. Many suspect that the real reason was the party leadership’s desire to ensure an easy win for Suga.
Suga could compensate for these failings by concentrating on domestic matters and delegating foreign affairs to better-qualified cabinet members. Unfortunately, it is more likely that key appointments will be determined not by merit, but by Suga’s need to reward the LDP factions that put him in office.
Overall, Japan has a well-judged security strategy that was implemented with modest success by Shinzō Abe. The risk is that, in Yoshihide Suga, Japan now has a leader who is ill-equipped to deal with its formidable international challenges.
James D J Brown is Associate Professor and Academic Programme Coordinator for International Affairs, Temple University, Tokyo.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.