Op-Ed: Suga’s short legacy in Asean
The news that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is to step down later this month and will not stand for re-election has not stirred up any reaction within ASEAN. The bloc’s member countries are used to the frequent leadership changes in the Land of the Rising Sun. They also understand well that any radical changes in Japanese foreign policy with a new leader taking over are almost impossible given its political structure and power relations with the US.
When Suga took over as head of the Liberal Democratic Party last year, it was a good move for the party, serving to boost voter support at a time of uncertainty due to the summer Olympics and the Covid-19 pandemic. The Olympics have now been successfully held and Suga can claim credit for his decision to go ahead. But he did so against public opinion, with polls showing that most Japanese either wanted the Games canceled or further postponed. While the Olympics demonstrated to the world Japan’s strong resilience and its sustained global power, the continued surge of new infections throughout Japan during and since the Games has caused Suga’s popularity to dip.
Worse still, at the recent mayoral race in Yokohama, Suga’s political base, his close aide and former public safety chief Hachiro Okonogi was defeated, causing a lowering of his prestige. In short, the prime minister lost face. In Japanese politics, the concept of “menboku wo ushinau” or “losing one’s face” is deadly. The Japanese voters went against Suga by voting for Okonogi’s opponent wanting to teach him a lesson for ignoring their concerns over the spread of coronavirus. This kind of humiliation within the Japanese context is considered a severe punishment.
Suga announced his intention to resign at an emergency meeting of senior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Toshihiro Nikai told reporters. “Today at the executive meeting, (party) president Suga said he wants to focus his efforts on anti-coronavirus measures and will not run in the leadership election,” Nikai said.
Within the region, Suga will be remembered as a colorless leader who wanted to strengthen ties with key Southeast Asian countries and deepen the alliance with the US. His visit to Vietnam and Indonesia on his first overseas trip last October indicated his desire to forge closer security ties with the two ASEAN members, which have expressed concerns over the rise of China’s maritime power. In Vietnam and Indonesia, apart from addressing the anti-pandemic campaign, Japan managed to send a strong signal to the region that Japan was focusing more on and would cooperate more in the area of maritime security and surveillance with the region. This is a strategic decision, which has been the highlight of Suga’s diplomacy.
At the moment, it is hard to predict who will succeed Suga. Two former foreign ministers, Taro Kono, and Fumio Fushida, are leading contenders. Both of them have the same outlook for Japan’s foreign policy and ties with the region. They want to see Japan with stronger security and strategic ties with the region to complement the US-Japan security umbrella including the Quadrilateral Dialogue Cooperation.
In the future, given the current fluid strategic environment the world over, the incoming Japanese leader must take the bull by the horns regarding the country’s international profile. In short, Japan must act more independently and display its own security needs without fear or favor. As such, Japan has a long must-do list, especially improving ties with its Northeast Asian Asian neighbors. Needless to say, closer ties with ASEAN have always been Japan’sgolden trademark and should be further deepened to respond to growing
interconnectedness between the two sides in all dimensions.
Throughout the past five decades, nobody can deny that Japan has been the engine of economic growth for all Asean members. More than they would like to admit, they would give more respect and make stronger collaborative efforts to Japan’s own genuine regional schemes.
By Kavi Chongkittavorn