New Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga – Continuity of Shinzo Abe Legacy? – Implications India

anil chopra, air power asia, Japan, Yoshihide Suga

After 8 years of Abe Shinzo’s unprecedented stint, on 16 September, Japan has a new prime minister in Suga Yoshihide, who was a longtime Chief Cabinet Secretary, and a very trusted lieutenant of Abe. As expected, Suga Yoshihide, won the approval in an internal Liberal Democratic Party vote. As the world watches with positive hope, only time will tell how the very well groomed Mr. Suga will perform as the prime minister. There is a general feeling that he will have a more practical approach and he may be more prepared to make compromises than other people in his party. There is also speculation is rife that Suga may seek to dissolve the lower house of parliament and go to the polls as early as this November to win a popular mandate, taking advantage of a fragmented opposition.

Yoshihide Suga (third from left) celebrates after winning the party leadership. Image Source: bbc.com

Early life

          Yoshihide Suga was born 6 December 1948 in a family of strawberry farmers in Ogachi (now Yuzawa), a rural area in Akita Prefecture, and moved to Tokyo after graduation from Yuzawa High School. He attended night school to obtain a Bachelor of Laws from Hosei University in 1973. Suga chose Hosei “because it was the cheapest option available” and he “worked in a cardboard factory in Tokyo to pay his tuition”.

Entry into Early Politics

          After graduating from university, Suga worked on a House of Councillors (upper house) election campaign, and thereafter worked as secretary to LDP Diet Member Hikosaburo Okonogi, father of LDP politician Hachiro Okonogi, for eleven years. Suga resigned from this position in October 1986 to pursue his own career in politics. He was elected to the Yokohama City Council in April 1987, campaigning door-to-door on foot, visiting as many as 30,000 houses and wearing through six pairs of shoes. He pioneered the practice of giving campaign speeches in front of busy train stations, which is now common among Japanese political candidates.

Political Career

          Suga was elected to the Diet of Japan in the 1996 general election, representing the Kanagawa 2nd district, in the House of Representatives. In his third year in the Diet, he shifted his support from Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to former LDP Secretary-General Seiroku Kajiyama, an unusual move for a junior legislator. He was re-elected in the 2000 general election, 2003 general election, and 2005 general election. He was appointed Senior Vice Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications in November 2005 under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He was promoted to Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications and Minister for Privatization of the Postal Services in the first Shinzo Abe cabinet in September 2006, and added the portfolio of Minister of State for Decentralization Reform in December 2006. He was instrumental in the development of Japan’s “hometown donation” system, which allowed taxpayers to obtain deductions by donating money to local governments. He was replaced by Hiroya Masuda in a cabinet reshuffle in August 2007. His “street-corner” campaigning style was credited with holding his seat in the 2009 general election, when many other LDP lawmakers lost their seats amid a surge in support for the Democratic Party of Japan.

Shinzo Abe’s Secure and Enduring Legacy. Image Source: nationalreview.com

Closeness to Shinzo Abe

          Suga remained close to Shinzo Abe during the late 2000s and early 2010s, and urged Abe to run for the LDP presidency in 2012. Unlike many of Abe’s other allies, Suga pushed Abe to focus on the economy rather than Abe’s long-standing ambition to revise Article 9 of the Constitution, which prohibits Japan from using a military as means of settling international disputes. In October 2011, he was appointed Chairman of the LDP Party Organization and Campaign Headquarters. In September 2012, he was appointed Executive Acting Secretary-General of the LDP. Following Abe’s victory in the 2012 general election, Suga was appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary in the second Abe cabinet in December 2012. In September 2014, he was given the additional portfolio of Minister in charge of Alleviating the Burden of the Bases in Okinawa. Suga and Taro Aso were the only members of the December 2012 cabinet who remained in the cabinet as of November 2019. He served as Chief Cabinet Secretary from 2012 to 2020. Suga is by far the longest-serving Chief Cabinet Secretary in Japanese history; the second longest-serving Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, served for a total of 1,289 days, less than half as long as Suga.

Key Initiatives as Cabinet Secretary

          As Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga served as an aide and advisor to Abe, and took an active managerial role in the government. He had a key role in the government’s initiatives to attract tourists and foreign workers and reduce mobile telephone rates. He formed a team to reexamine the lead-up to the Kono Statement of 1993 but the group was soon after disbanded without ever reaching a consensus. He was affiliated with the openly nationalist organisation Nippon Kaigi. Under Abe, Suga overcame party resistance to implement a visa program that opened the doors for unskilled foreign workers, a shift from the previous policy, which centered on internship programs that often confined foreign workers to low-paying jobs. He was also supportive of aggressive measures by the Bank of Japan to counter deflation. In 2015, he was criticized for publicly encouraging Japanese women to “contribute to their country” by having more children. He continued to hold his seat in the 2014 general election and 2017 general election.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks to Japan’s then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on Oct. 6, 2018. Image Source: time.com

Emerged As Candidate

            Suga gained domestic and international fame when he announced the name of the new imperial era, Reiwa, on 1 April 2019. While he had previously been a low-profile member of the government, this honor gave him an instant surge in name recognition and led more LDP lawmakers to view him as a viable candidate for party leadership. He was sent to Washington in May 2019 for a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and other senior officials, fueling speculation that he was being groomed to serve as Abe’s successor. Suga faced scrutiny later that year due to the resignations of Cabinet ministers Katsuyuki Kawai and Isshu Sugawara, both of whom had been close associates of Suga and were accused of campaign financing violations. Suga also remained politically active during this time, coordinating support for the LDP candidate in the 2019 Hokkaido gubernatorial election, a role typically reserved for top LDP officials. Suga served as a key Abe deputy during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. He criticized the structure of the Japanese bureaucracy, with deep divisions between ministries, as stalling coordination to stop the spread of the virus. Following Shinzo Abe’s resignation announcement in August 2020, Suga emerged as the leading contender to replace him in the upcoming leadership election, having gained the support of Deputy Prime Minister Tarō Asō and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, as well as the two largest factions in the LDP and supposedly even Abe himself. Suga’s main competitors in the LDP leadership race were longtime Abe rival Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

President of LDP

          Suga announced his candidacy in the 2020 LDP leadership election following Abe’s resignation announcement, and was widely considered the frontrunner to succeed Abe as prime minister, having secured endorsements from a majority of voting members in the party in advance of the election. He was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party on 14 September 2020 with 377 votes out of a total of 534, and formally elected Prime Minister by the National Diet on 16 September 2020. Upon his election, Suga outlined a policy agenda that included tackling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and implementing further deregulation to revitalize the economy. He reiterated his past interest in consolidating regional banks and lowering mobile phone charges in Japan.

Image Source: bbc.com

Family Life and Fitness Freak

          Suga is married and has three sons. His wife, Mariko, was a sister of his co-worker in the office of Hikosaburo Okonogi. Suga has a daily fitness routine includes doing 100 situps and 40 minutes of walking each morning, and 100 situps each night. He started this routine after a doctor advised him to lose weight, and he lost 14 kg in four months.

Shinzo Abe’s leadership

          Shinzo Abe, was the longest-serving Prime Minister of Japan. Abe’s grandfather was prime minister and epitomized Japan’s tradition of hereditary politics. Normally he would have completed his tenure in September 2021 after the Tokyo Olympics, and with an economy having clear signs of growth. He did have a great legacy both domestically and internationally. Despite representing the most conservative wing of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe was seen encouraging liberal in his approach to economic migrants and expansion of the labour pool to include women writes Harini Madhusudan. With his strong persuasion Abe managed to get the bureaucratic state on-board his radical economic policies. To handle decades of economic near-stagnation, deflation and rising debt, Abe introduced many fiscal policies and measures to improve employment and economic growth. Popularly known as Abenomics, he introduced aggressive monetary policy, fiscal consolidation and growth strategy, as a multi-pronged economic program in 2012. The employment and growth rates had shown improvement before the pandemic, and Japan has not faced a debt crisis. Though there were political scandals and corruption charges against him and his party members, and he was being criticized for poor COVID management.

The Quad Countries Location. Image Source: Wikipedia

Abe’s International Relations

          Japan was tending to somewhat side with US, relations with China were mixed, and relations with North Korea, South Korea and Russia remained uncertain. He would have liked to close territorial disputes with Russia, and wanted to give more power and autonomy to the military, which were his tasks still incomplete. In his first term, in 2007, he had managed to get USA and India onboard the Quad. Abe was a golf buddy of Trump and often spoke on international issues. When Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe ensured that the other signatories would keep the agreement alive and called it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) writes Harini Madhusudan. Abe was also architect of multiple new trade deals.  He ensured that Japan was seen as a reliable partner. Japan had very close ties with democracies like India, Australia, Canada, the US. The economic reforms introduced by him would certainly provide long- term benefits to Japan.

ASEAN 2017. Indian PM Modi, Japanese PM Abe, US President Trump in Manila. Image Source: dailyo.in

Great Grooming of Yoshihide Suga

          A CSIS report of September 14, 2020 by Michael J. Green, Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair, and Nicholas Szechenyi Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Japan Chair; Asia Program https://www.csis.org/analysis/yoshihide-suga-japans-new-leader that Suga faced two opponents, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, in the race to serve out the one year remaining on Abe’s term as party president. Suga won handily by securing 377 votes compared to 89 for Kishida and 68 for Ishiba. Suga secured endorsements from several party factions based presumably on an assumption that he would further Abe’s policy agenda after serving as his chief cabinet secretary (a combination of chief of staff and government spokesperson) for nearly eight years.

          Suga comes from humble background, being a son of a farmer and has literally built his political career from scratch. As Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, and he wielded considerable power behind the scenes, and as part of  centralized decision making, he established good control over bureaucrats. Suga also coordinated the legislative agenda with the LDP and junior coalition partner Komeito, most important of which was defense policy reforms in 2015 that allowed Japan to exercise collective self-defense in certain circumstances. Suga has had relatively less exposure to diplomacy and foreign policy, the CSIS study reveals, though as chief cabinet secretary he has participated in Japan’s National Security Council deliberations and is very familiar with the strategic priorities. He has also won kudos from the bureaucracy and business world for his commitment to solving difficult policy issues.

Suga’s Immediate Priorities

          His first focus would remain tackling the coronavirus and revitalizing the economy. Suga’s strong track record of pushing through regulatory reform should help. Suga has also expressed support for legislative debates on constitutional reform. His foreign policy is expected to align with Abe’s. There will be emphasis on strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, and networking with maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. What will be his approach to China is unclear. He may try to stabilize bilateral ties while continuing to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities to deter Chinese coercion in the East China Sea. Suga’s Washington visit in 2019 had helped him network.

Suga and Japan’s Domestic Politics

          Suga gets one clear year to strengthen his own political base before LDP’s next presidential election. Elections for Japan’s Lower House of the Diet are scheduled shortly thereafter. As caretaker, can Suga capitalize on his experience to consolidate power. Two Japanese center-left opposition parties recently joined hands in anticipation of a possible snap election, though their combined support still trails far behind the LDP in public opinion polls.

Image Source: You Tube

Suga – Implications for India

          The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is a conservative party that of late has been pushing for expanded military powers to fight in foreign conflict. India Japan relations date back to Subhash Chander Bose’s Indian National Army. Japan has greatly supported economic development in India, including in automobile and metro rail sectors. Abe had made great strides to get close to India in 2007 and convinced the then government of PM Manmohan Singh about closer cooperation and need for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). There was great chemistry between the charismatic PM Modi and Abe. In September 2014, newly elected Indian Prime Minister Modi paid an official visit to Japan and had a summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. They agreed to upgrade the bilateral relationship to “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.” The body language of Japanese PM was very ‘pro-India’, as he laid out the red carpet. In December 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Abe paid an official visit to India. The two nations resolved to transform the relations further into a deep, broad-based and action-oriented partnership, which reflects a broad convergence of their long-term political, economic and strategic goals. They announced “Japan and India Vision 2025” peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and the world. In November 2016, Indian PM visit to Japan substantially advanced the “new era in Japan-India relations,” and coordinated the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and the “Act East” policy. Indian PM again visited Japan again in October 2018.

          Japan intended to target 3.5 trillion yen of public and private investment and financing, including Official Development Assistance (ODA), to India over the coming five years. Japan sought India to improve the business environment, including the easing of regulations. India established the “Japan Plus” office in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in October 2014 as a single-point for resolving problems faced by Japanese companies. India also decided to introduce the Shinkansen high-speed railway system. India has been the largest recipient of Japanese ODA loan for the past few decades. 

India-Japan-US trilateral maritime exercise concludes off Guam coast in 2018. Image Source: indiatvnews.com

          The first joint naval exercise with JSDF, Exercise ‘Malabar 2007’ was held in the Indian Ocean, along with Australia, Singapore and United States. Maintaining secure sea-lanes in the Indo-Pacific region, fighting piracy and terrorism, and check proliferation of weapons of mass destruction were the stated common goals.  The exercise sent ripples in the region, especially for China. India and Japan signed a security pact in October 2008. India is among the only three countries Japan has a security pact with, US and Australia being the other two. There are also various frameworks of security and defense dialogue between Japan and India including “2+2” meeting, annual “Defense Ministerial Dialogue” and “Coast Guard-to-Coast Guard dialogue”. PM Abe is seen by some as an ‘Indophile’. The Japan-India strategic partnership seems well on its way to exploit the growing strategic convergences between the two nations against the backdrop of China’s military overbearing behaviour in East Asia and South East Asia. Japan and Indian armed forces both share a rich legacy of military traditions and both nations would benefit from enhanced military-to-military contacts and cooperation across the entire military spectrum.

          Suga has been the behind the scenes man for Abe. It is thus expected that there will be continuity of policies. While it is wait and watch for India, but the general trajectory has been set. What would be more critical is the further reelection of Suga, whether it is through a snap poll for the polls next year.  

Picture Credit: time.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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