What a Suga premiership means for Japan, the broader region, and Thailand

On August 15, 2012, Abe Shinzo was persuaded to run for the Japanese premiership. It was not the first time he had done so; he had already served as prime minister in 2006, only to resign ignominiously a year later after losing public support and suffering from a digestive ailment.

According to The Iconoclast, a new biography on Abe, the figure who had finally persuaded Abe to run again was Suga Yoshihide, a former minister in his government who has remained a loyalist ever since. “Abe-san,” Suga told the former prime minister, “your chance has come. This is the time that I have been waiting for. If you run, I think you will win.” 

Suga was correct: Abe did indeed win the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party, and later a general election that propelled him back into the Kantei. Few would have guessed it then, but Abe would go on to become the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in history. After a period of ‘revolving door’ prime ministers, with six prime ministers in six years, Abe’s tenure would have been viewed as significant merely for its sheer stability. 

But Abe also proved to be a transformative leader for Japan. His Abenomics program, although derided by some as overtly simplistic, ensured that Japan underwent modest economic growth over Abe’s tenure and restored a measure of confidence to a nation that had suffered two lost decades. But even more importantly, Abe did much to bolster Japan’s position on the world stage and took on a renewed regional leadership role that had been markedly absent before. 

Abe did not achieve his life goal of revising Japan’s postwar constitution and its famous pacifist clause.  He did, however, succeed in reinterpreting the constitution to allow for collective self-defense, which permits Japan to send troops abroad to protect allies, making Japan a more equal partner in the US-Japan alliance. 

Indeed, almost unique among Asian leaders, Abe was able to maintain a strong relationship with US President Donald Trump despite the president’s decades-long obsession with the US trade deficit with Japan. 

Regionally, Abe continued to champion the Trans-Pacific Partnership even after the United States pulled out, indeed becoming a major spokesperson for globalism and free trade despite his party’s continued support for protectionist agricultural policies. With Southeast Asia, Abe strengthened ties through programs such as the Partnership for Qualify Infrastructure, which became an alternative to China’s Belt and Road scheme. 

He also became a key proponent of the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and the Japanese vision aligns closely with the one adopted by ASEAN last year.  

The hawkish prime minister certainly damaged relations with Japan’s neighbors such as China and South Korea with his stances on historical memory and his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which according to Japanese tradition houses the spirits of Japan’s war dead, including war criminals from the Second World War. But many Southeast Asian states will have appreciated the strengthened security cooperation that Abe provided, including holding the first joint military exercises with a number of countries. 

Now, however, Abe is gone due to the same reason as in 2007: a flare-up of ulcerative colitis. His successor is Suga Yoshihide, the loyalist who had backed him time and time again and who has served as chief cabinet secretary for the entirety of the second Abe administration. 

The son of strawberry farmers, Suga had rarely caught the public’s attention, despite his high profile role where he stood in front of cameras twice a day. He only catapulted to fame when he unveiled the new imperial era name last year upon the ascension of Emperor Naruhito, becoming known affectionately as Reiwa ojisan (Uncle Reiwa). 

Yet this cute moniker belies the steely determination of this self-made politician — a rarity in Japanese politics — who has earned a reputation as Abe’s ‘enforcer.’ Indeed, Suga ran as the continuity candidate to succeed Abe, pledging to continue the policies of the second Abe administration, and was quickly embraced by his fellow lawmakers attracted to the notion of continued stability. 

However, the degree to which he will focus on international affairs, which was Abe’s true love, can be called into question. Suga, after all, has very limited diplomatic experience and appears to be focused on domestic issues. The coronavirus pandemic, to which Abe had been unable to adequately respond in the eyes of the Japanese public, is likely to occupy Suga’s attention for the foreseeable future.

Suga’s other domestic goals were also evident in his first tweet as prime minister, where he announced that he is “determined to tear down bureaucratic sectionalism, vested interests and [the] notorious habit of following precedents”. It was an almost melodramatically domestic focus. The new prime minister even shifted the dynamic defense minister Kono Taro to the post of administrative reform minister to spearhead the priority of bureaucratic reform. 

Another question is the extent to which Suga will continue formulating grand visions for the Asia Pacific. Abe was a famously big thinker, full of grand visions and ideas, especially in security policy. Suga, on the other hand, is much more intensely practical. As analyst Tobias Harris wrote while reading a book Suga wrote in 2012, “Suga basically never talks about general principles.” Where Abenomics was a sweeping economic program, Suganomics currently seems focused on reducing mobile phone bills.

Suga has made some moves to emphasize continuity with Abe on foreign policy. This included retaining foreign minister Motegi Toshimitsu in his post and appointing Kishi Nobuo, Abe’s younger brother, to the role of defense minister. (Nothing screams continuity quite as much as appointing the former prime minister’s sibling.) 

What is clear, already, is that Japan’s commitment to Southeast Asia will continue. He is also currently planning to make his first foreign trip as prime minister to Vietnam and Indonesia, which were also Abe’s first destinations in his second term to emphasize how much his administration prioritized building ties in the region. 

Suga’s two destinations have raised eyebrows, however. Abe had also included Thailand on his first tour, but Bangkok was excluded from Suga’s proposed tour. Chaithawan Tulathon, secretary-general of the Move Forward Party, noted this omission, tweeting that “Japan wants an increased presence in this region, but has not mentioned Thailand at all. This is because elite politics since the 2006 coup has dragged Thailand into a lost decade and the country has since become the sick man of Asia.” 

There may not be much value in reading too much into Suga’s itinerary. Vietnam is this year’s ASEAN chair and Indonesia was the key leader in crafting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific last year. In addition, it is unlikely that the military coup itself led to Suga’s overlooking of Thailand. In fact, Japan under Abe was one of the most pragmatic in dealing with post-coup Thailand and quickly embraced the military regime. Despite this, Abe was able to publicly uphold his commitment to democracy when Prayut promised in a 2015 visit to Japan to quickly hold elections (a promise later broken). By contrast, Prayut did not visit the White House until 2017. 

But it is still important to note that Thailand’s shift into the Chinese orbit has likely made deepening Japan-Thailand ties less of a priority for the Suga administration. As Nikkei Asia has noted, Thailand’s deepening alignment with China and attempts by Japan and the US to garner clear Thai support against China’s actions in the South China Sea have failed. In response, India has emerged as a more important strategic partner to Japan. 

Overall, the broad outlines of Abe’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia is likely to continue, despite Suga’s inexperience in diplomatic affairs, lack of affinity for big visions and focus on domestic priorities. And given Japan’s preoccupation with regional security, strengthening ties with Thailand is unlikely to feature as a particularly important priority for the new prime minister. 

Note: this article uses the Japanese government’s recommended naming convention of family name then first name. This has been done to align with how names in other East Asian languages are written in English, including Chinese and Korean names.

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