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Japan's new leader unlikely to confront China

Yoshihide Suga widely seen as a transitional leader

| Japan
Shinzo Abe holds a bouquet of flowers as he leaves the premises on Sept. 16: Abe left without making any significant headway in any one of his three policy goals.   © Reuters

Tosh Minohara is chairman of the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs and professor at Kobe University's Graduate School of Law and Politics.

As all things come to an end, so too has the tenure of the longest ever serving Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Including his first term, Abe was at the helm of Japan's political leadership for nearly nine years; incredibly, this means that he was in power longer than a two-term American president. This is an amazing feat considering Japan's history of weak leaders who often last around a year in office, including Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso, Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan, Yoshihiko Noda as some of the most recent examples.

Of course, political staying power means that a prime minister has ample time to build a legacy. On the other hand, it means that critics abound. In Abe's case, one can make a strong case that he failed in his three policy goals of the North Korean abduction issue, the Northern Territories issue with Russia, and the revision of Article 9 of the constitution, which expresses Japan's pacifist principles and is a domestic political issue with profound external implications.

There is no denying that these goals were all tall orders to begin with and thus one can make an argument that Abe, a self-proclaimed pragmatist, lacked realism when setting his initial policy goals. As a result, he left Japan's highest office without making any significant headway in any one of these issues.

Furthermore, his much-touted Abenomics also fell short of its lofty aims, although Abe did bring about an era of much needed economic growth to Japan. To be sure, his economic legacy is clouded because growth was stymied due to his decision to raise the consumption tax, and moreover, most of the economic gains made during his tenure were wiped clean by the recent pandemic.

Abe was never really able to clear his name from the three political scandals that embroiled him, and the first lady appeared more as a political liability in the public eye. Further, it should not be overlooked that toward the end of his tenure there were numerous resignations by his cabinet ministers due to scandals, including his justice minister who has been indicted on bribery charges.

Despite these shortfalls, future historians will most likely give praise to Abe for the following three reasons. First, his longevity as Japan's political leader gave a solid face to Japanese diplomacy. Opinions aside, the world came to know Abe. Thus, unlike past Japanese leaders, the other leaders at global forums such as the G-7 knew he would be back the following year. This increased his political clout as well as his credence among his G-7 peers. As a matter of fact, Abe was the second-longest serving Group of Seven leader behind Germany's Angela Merkel. This fact itself enhanced not only Japan's visibility but its ability to assert its key interests in the minds of the other world leaders.

Second, Abe was able to shift Japan ever so slightly away from the Yoshida Doctrine, which has defined Japan's security identity from the 1950s. Abe paved the path toward a reinterpretation of Japan's national security laws so that it would allow collective self-defense with the U.S. Considering the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, this revision was common sense, albeit something that Japan's past leaders were utterly unable to do. The political determination shown by Abe not only made the U.S.-Japan alliance more robust but also gave it new legs that are sure to carry it through the next decade.

However, the downside was that the reinterpretation took the momentum away from constitutional revision of article 9, the real prize. This also would have been the most clear-cut way in which Abe could have surpassed the legacy of his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke who first revised the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Constitutional revision remains a necessary step and only through this action alone can Japan's security identity truly be altered to one that will enable it to become a regional security provider. This will be the epochal moment when the Yoshida Doctrine will be jettisoned forever, and Japan will be able to chart new waters as an active player in the security realm.

Lastly, Abe was able to forge a strong relationship with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, a person known to be difficult to deal with. But not only did Abe visit Trump when he was still "president-elect Trump" in November 2016, he made sure to keep in touch with him as much as possible by calling him by phone more than any other G-7 leader, which Trump appreciated. In addition, the numerous rounds of golf -- a sport Trump truly enjoys -- served to bolster the personal relationship between the two leaders.

Trump and Abe talk on the way to the course to play golf at Mobara Country Club in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, in May 2019: numerous rounds of golf served to bolster the personal relationship between the two leaders.   © Reuters

While this was not a relationship based on genuine friendship and mutual admiration of the sort seen between Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone, it was nevertheless a relationship that undoubtedly bolstered U.S.-Japan ties from the very top. As one high ranking U.S. official said to me, Abe's project-like approach of working "on" Trump, rather than working "with" Trump, worked rather well.

Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is viewed by many as a transitional leader who will continue to tow Abe's line. His emergence as the leader was prompted by the weakness of Abe's preferred successor Fumio Kishida, and the increasingly likely victory of Shigeru Ishiba. Amid these political realities, the only effective counter weapon was Suga, whose candidacy effectively closed the doors for other popular candidates such as Defense Minister Taro Kono. A compromise prime minister, Suga will surely be sweet music to China as well, as he appears to be very pliable and not willing to confront Beijing head-on.

Undeniably, the first task from the standpoint of foreign policy is that Suga must continue the strong personal diplomacy vis-a-vis the U.S. Who his American counterpart will be remains to be seen, but considering Suga's personality, Democratic nominee Joe Biden seems to be a much better match than Trump.

And Biden surely will not take personal affront even if Suga does not fly to the U.S. to personally greet him if he prevails in the November election. Perhaps through the "Joe and Yoshi" relationship, Biden can nudge a reluctant Suga to put more teeth into the quadrilateral security dialogue, known as the Quad, with Japan, India and Australia to give it more bite, and also add the all-important "s" for strategy to Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Policy which stubbornly still remains a mere "concept" to this day.

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