Monday 21 September 2020 4:02 am

Japan's Yoshihide Suga: New Prime Minister, same old problems

Dr John C. Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises. He can be reached for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.

All my life I have been fascinated by island kingdoms with honour cultures off large, unknowable continents. For in both the UK and Japan, things are rarely as they seem, and subtext is all. 

For example, the key to understanding modern Japanese politics is to know that the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is not remotely what its name professes it to be. It is neither liberal (it is conservative), nor is it democratic (only party MPs and prefecture functionaries voted for the new party leader, not its rank-and-file members), nor is it truly a party, instead being an amalgamation of long-standing factions, often grouped around a leading, even dynastic, family.

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This last misnomer must be kept especially in mind when looking at the recent elevation of Yoshihide Suga as the LDP’s new party leader and the Japanese prime minister. Because his first major problem is that unlike his outgoing mentor, former Premier Shinzo Abe, he has no factional support behind him. 

While for the past eight years, Suga has devotedly served as Abe’s right-hand man, he had no innate factional political support of his own. He is Abe without the illness that caused the premier to resign, merely a placeholder without any innate clout to strike out in new policy directions. 

In fact, his election illustrates in political risk terms precisely the opposite; the LDP want a placeholder (Suga is fit but he is 71) to continue Abe’s policies for the next couple of years before they look at a generational transition. 

Suga won the leadership contest precisely because Abe arranged his successor’s triumph with the other LDP factions. Given the politics, a steady-as-she-goes approach to policy is what Suga is bound to give us. 

Suga’s second problem is that his expertise is far more domestic-oriented than in the foreign policy realm, ironically even as Abe’s historical successes have been largely geostrategic. Abe’s much-vaunted Abenomics macro-economic reform plan has had some successes, even as it had failed to extricate Japan fully from the deflationary spiral that has hobbled its economy these past two decades. 

While the three arrows of highly expansionary fiscal policy, very loose monetary policy, and some structural reform – notably in free trade and liberalizing the agricultural sector – have done more good than harm, they have not changed Japan’s worrying strategic trajectory as an aging, demographically-challenged, low growth, advanced industrial country in relative decline, surely compared to its long-term rival and neighbour, China. 

Suga has been at the heart of this limited policy victory, cajoling Tokyo’s resistant bureaucracy to do more, speaking daily about the reforms to the press, and formulating policy behind the scenes with Abe himself. But, even before the virus, Abenomics has brought Japan diminishing returns. Suga’s expertise here does not seem such a blessing moving forward. 

However, it is on the foreign policy front – the scene of Abe’s great historical triumphs – that Suga is most wanting. While the outgoing prime minister developed a reputation as a Trump whisperer, able to manage the fractious and mercurial president, based on both their personal rapport and their shared alarm at China’s expansionism, Suga has no such personal ties nor any real foreign policy pedigree.

Abe, in the face of ruinous American disinterest, took the diplomatic lead in organizing an effective Asian Anglosphere response (of which Japan has long been an honorary member) to Beijing – in geo-economic terms through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and in geostrategic terms through The Quadrilateral Initiative of Japan, India, Australia and the US. Suga has had precious little involvement in any of this. 

In other words, Suga’s domestic strengths are past their sell-by date, while the gaping geostrategic hole in his resume could not come at a worse time for a Japan that under Abe has made the most of the foreign policy cards it has been dealt in our new era. 

Read more: Yoshihide Suga confirmed as Japan’s new prime minister

It is hard to root against a man whose iron discipline is such that he does 100 sit-ups every morning and night. Nevertheless, in the bad old days of Japanese drift before Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012, there were six premiers in six years, including Abe’s short and unsuccessful first term. They are mere placeholders who did nothing historically to merit remembrance. 

Sadly, due to Yoshihide Suga’s entrenched set of limitations, Tokyo seems to be reverting to its old, ineffectual placeholder model. In Asia, America must now take the lead, picking up Abe’s baton. 

Dr John C. Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises. He can be reached for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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