TOKYO -- It is often a thankless predicament when a person succeeds a leader who has left big shoes to fill. The successor is invariably compared to the predecessor in ways big and small and may be criticized even if attaining average, though still respectable, achievements.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga finds himself in just such a position when it comes to diplomacy. He follows Shinzo Abe, who established strong relations with leaders around the world and played a significant role in international politics.
Suga has so far managed foreign policy in a flawless manner. He visited Vietnam and Indonesia in late October and called for realizing a "free and open" Indo-Pacific.
On Nov. 17, he met Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Tokyo and they agreed on a framework for a reciprocal agreement to allow joint drills and operations between the two countries' armed forces. The deal is an achievement that brings Japan and Australia closer to a quasi-alliance.
Still, Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy. But he has quietly disclosed the following intentions to his aides: continue Abe's diplomacy as it is for at least a year; urge aides and bureaucrats to present their expertise and proposals for each policy; and then make his own decisions on key issues.
Suga has taken a wise approach expressed by the old saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Thus, continuing Abe's diplomacy is a prerequisite for his own success.
But international politics could be about to change in a big way, as the U.S. will have a new president in Joe Biden in late January. Sooner or later, there will be issues Japan cannot overcome if Suga just inherits Abe's diplomatic approach.
It is thus important to examine the strength and fragility of Suga's approach to foreign affairs in advance and fill in potential blind spots.
Suga's strength lies in his ability to exert control over government ministries and agencies and put policies into action, according to people close to him. The political instincts Suga has honed through power struggles will contribute to his diplomacy.
Although China is economically important, the alliance between Tokyo and Washington ranks above all else for Japan. Suga keenly understands that the alliance must not be shaken, aides to him said.
During his days as chief cabinet secretary, Suga advanced the plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa at the cost of being criticized as iron-fisted. Though hardly known in Japan, within the U.S. government Suga is appreciated as a political figure who keeps his word.
However, his diplomacy requires more than that as the power struggle among leaders over the current world order grows increasingly intense.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is striving to weaken the influence of the U.S. in various regions and establish an order under the leadership of Beijing.
China has signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement, which does not include the U.S. Last week, furthermore, Xi expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. These moves are undeniably aimed at paving the way for Xi's ambition to establish a China-led order.
A sense of crisis is growing in the U.S. After taking office, Biden is expected to toughen Washington's anti-China stance in cooperation with allies.
Tony Blinken, picked by Biden as secretary of state, intends to pursue an expansion of human rights and democracy in implementing his Asian strategy, said foreign policy experts close to the president-elect's team of aides.
One policy option Suga should take is self-evident. In the postwar era, Japan has breathed the air of democracy and achieved economic prosperity. But the air will thin if China's influence on the global order grows. Thus, to avoid such a consequence and maintain the existing structure in cooperation with the U.S. and other democratic countries will serve Japan's national interest.
Specifically, Japan should, as a top priority, seek to increase support for the "free and open Indo-Pacific" initiative -- proposed by Abe and adopted by the U.S., Australia and India -- and expand the range of cooperation for it.
As suggested by its name, the concept is aimed at protecting the value of freedom. To live up to its purpose, it is urgently necessary to promote measures such as transparent infrastructure projects, the preparation of norms for digital blocs and joint drills at sea so as to maintain the safety of oceans and trade based on international rules.
China is pressuring Southeast Asian countries and others not to come into alignment with the Indo-Pacific initiative, which will stand dead in the water if Japan, its architect, becomes hesitant to pursue the goal.
Australia and Southeast Asian nations are wondering how dedicated Suga is to it and whether he will stumble in the face of China's protests, according to diplomatic sources.
Although Morrison would need a two-week coronavirus quarantine after returning from his Southeast Asian trip, he still flew to Japan to confirm the new Japanese leader's "resolve."
People close to Suga say he neither likes to nor is good at putting forward his strong vision of the world and philosophy. He seems to believe that it is more important to steadily settle problems at hand than resort to abstract rhetoric.
But it will fail if he engages in summit diplomacy without a firm view of the world. That is because Japan will find it difficult to win tough competition with China over competing visions of the world order unless Suga shares his belief in the democratic order with leaders of other countries.
Japan will inevitably face an increase in tensions with China if it further promotes the Indo-Pacific vision. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Japan for two days from Tuesday not only to seek an improvement in the bilateral relationship but also to warn Tokyo off the initiative.
There is no doubt that China is an indispensable economic partner for Japan. Therefore, Japan needs to make efforts to deepen cooperation with China in mutually beneficial areas such as the environment, health care and social security in order to establish a shock-resistant structure of relations so that bilateral ties will not completely collapse due to political earthquakes. It is becoming ever more important to promote such efforts.