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The Nikkei View

Suga diplomacy needs a vision, with Japan-US alliance at core

Promoting Indo-Pacific strategy and TPP will best advance national interest

Yoshihide Suga, then serving as Japan's cabinet secretary, meets with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Washington in May 2019.   © Japanese Embassy (U.S.)

After winning the race to become Japan's prime minister on a message of carrying the torch of predecessor Shinzo Abe, new leader Yoshihide Suga will now perhaps be most challenged in foreign policy and national security.

No shortage of issues await him on the international stage, including the ever-deepening Sino-American rift and the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic.

In his inaugural news conference, Suga said he will base his foreign policy on a functioning Japan-U.S. alliance.

The White House, for its part, issued a congratulatory message noting that the bilateral relationship "has never been stronger" and that President Donald Trump "looks forward to working with Prime Minister Suga to make it even stronger."

The alliance remains the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy and national security. First on the calendar is the U.S. presidential election in November. No matter who wins -- Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden -- Suga must act fast and reaffirm with the American leader the importance of the alliance.

Diplomacy increasingly relies on the personal relationships between leaders these days. Abe and Trump were the ultimate exemplars of this trend. For Suga, whose diplomatic prowess has yet to be tested, the key to success in dealing with the U.S. is whether he can quickly build a relationship of trust with the president that allows candid discussions even when their positions differ.

The U.S. is set to press Japan to shoulder a greater share of the cost of hosting American troops. This is scheduled to happen by the end of the year. Japan needs to understand the desire in Washington to push allies to do more, regardless of who is sitting in the White House.

Abe's track record on diplomacy and security was bold. But even he left much to be desired in managing relations with neighbors. Suga was therefore spot on when he expressed a desire to build stable ties with neighboring countries.

Diplomacy with Beijing ideally needs to take a strategic approach in line with the Japan-U.S. alliance.

China's initial response to the new coronavirus has brewed distrust in Japan. So has the evisceration of "one country, two systems" via the new security law imposed on Hong Kong.

Around the waters of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu, Chinese vessels sailed for extended periods along the contiguous zone and repeatedly made incursions into Japan's territorial waters.

Prior to taking office, Suga expressed reservations about the wisdom of forging an anti-China security alliance. Even so, he should clearly and firmly convey to Beijing Japan's positions on such issues as Hong Kong and human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned state visit to Japan, originally slated for April, has been put off due to the pandemic. Japan and China, the third- and second-largest economies, can work closely in tackling various global challenges only if the poisonous atmosphere of distrust between the two capitals is removed. There is a long list of issues on which the two nations can and should cooperate once the pandemic is over.

The ice-cold state of Japan-South Korea relations can only have negative economic and security effects. If the annual extension of the intelligence-sharing arrangement known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement becomes a bone of contention every fall, it will hamper the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance that forms the linchpin of East Asian security.

There remains a wide rift between the two countries over the issue of Japanese compensation to Korean wartime laborers drafted to work in Japan, known as choyoko. The two sides should start their efforts to patch up their relationship by taking steps to ease the mutual distrust.

The prime minister said retrieving Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and '80s is his top priority. But just waiting for an opportunity to present itself is not enough to create a breakthrough. Japan must push for the resumption of U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks and use everything in its power to solve the abduction issue.

Peace treaty talks with Russia are also an uphill battle. The four northern islands illegally occupied by the Soviet Union in the last days of World War II are an inherent part of Japan. Tokyo has no choice but to stick to that principle and negotiate persistently.

On the domestic security front, Abe began, and left unfinished, a discussion on pursuing a new way to protect against incoming ballistic missiles now that the Aegis Ashore deployment has been halted.

Enemy-base attack capabilities are one way to bolster defense, but there still needs to be a thorough assessment about the effectiveness of that approach, as well as coordination with the U.S. As this is potentially a shift in defense policy, the public deserves a clear explanation.

The Abe government's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy was widely praised in the international community for its foresight. It makes sense to expand on those talks, amid heightened national security concerns around the country.

Japan is best suited to leading multinational diplomacy. The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement at a time when the world tilted toward protectionism were fruits of Japan's commitment to free trade. This effort should continue.

The choice of foreign minister, a holdover from the previous government, and defense minister, Abe's brother, signal a continuation of the previous regime. Suga says he will lean on all means available, including consulting predecessors, on foreign policy matters.

Abe's playbook of deepening cooperation with like-minded countries is well worth following. At the same time, we look forward to seeing Suga's own foreign policy vision for ensuring peace and security in East Asia and beyond.

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