Report

Japan’s Suga Will Struggle to Pull off Abe’s Defense Transformation

The new Japanese prime minister shares many of outgoing Shinzo Abe’s policies—but isn’t as wedded to Abe’s big overhaul.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (R) leaves the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on April 5, 2017, after his press conference announcing North Korea's ballistic missile launch into the Sea of Japan.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (R) leaves the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on April 5, 2017, after his press conference announcing North Korea's ballistic missile launch into the Sea of Japan. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Yoshihide Suga, the low-key son of a farmer who will be named Japan’s next prime minister on Wednesday, is in many ways a policy clone of recently resigned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But that doesn’t mean Suga will bring anything like the same effort Abe did to bolstering Japan’s defense capabilities—a transition in Japanese politics both Beijing and Washington will be watching.

Suga, who overcame two favored party rivals to unexpectedly grab the top of the greasy pole, lacks the political pedigree or hobnobbing skills that made Abe a fixture on the international political scene. But he also lacks Abe’s compulsion to break the constraints of Japan’s post-war defense posture, and is additionally hemmed in by the coronavirus pandemic and the economic damage it’s wrought, which will likely push Japan’s nascent security awakening to the back seat for now.

“He’s got to focus on economics,” said Michael Auslin, a distinguished research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “You don’t win elections on foreign policy. He’s got to prioritize reform, he’s got to deal with the COVID virus. He has enormous pressures on him which means those that want to push him into Japan taking a smaller role on the [world] stage are going to have a great opportunity.” 

Unlike the globe-trotting, glad-handing Abe, who grabbed the spotlight with controversial and conciliatory visits—touring Japanese war shrines as well as Pearl Harbor, then wooing U.S. President Donald Trump—Suga is likely to hew to the low-profile approach honed by seven years of scandal and intra-party rebellion as Abe’s right-hand man.

“Everyone has underestimated him his entire career,” said Joshua Walker, the president and CEO of the Japan Society and a former State and Defense Department official. “No one would have said two months ago he would have had a chance.”

But when it comes to Japan’s more muscular approach to foreign policy, Suga may not be Abe’s most aggressive steward. Allies might expect the new prime minister to double down on Japan’s regional ambitions and strengthened military posture, which includes more freedom for overseas deployments and higher-end military hardware. Regional rivals like China might be hoping he doesn’t.

Abe tried, though ultimately fell short, to tweak Japan’s post-war constitution to allow for a more aggressive security stance. After unexpectedly resigning for health reasons, Abe issued a parting statement calling on Tokyo to consider developing first-strike capabilities to defend the country from imminent missile attacks, a departure from Japan’s historical imperative toward self-defense. 

And Abe spent considerable energy cultivating close ties with Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cemented by his commitment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a defense grouping of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan aimed at the broader Indo-Pacific region.

There are a pair of upcoming bellwethers to gauge Suga’s mettle: a rewritten National Security Strategy set to land on the prime minister’s desk before the end of the year, and ongoing talks within Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party over whether to add conventional missile strike capabilities to the nation’s arsenal. 

While experts said that style, not substance, would mark the major difference between the longtime political allies on foreign policy, Suga likely won’t be the disruptive force Abe sought to be. 

“Because Abe’s heart was really in the security domain and [he] really wanted to make changes there, he was willing to push on the doors and see what would open and wouldn’t open,” said Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation specialising in East Asian security issues. 

“I don’t think Suga is going to do that. I think he sees what doors are open and is going to push on the path of least resistance.” 

Suga is likely to maintain a domestic focus, especially when it comes to extending Abe’s recipe for goosing the economy, but experts expect he will soon be challenged by North Korea, likely with cyberintrusions, and a resurgent China, which has confronted Japan repeatedly in recent years over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Suga’s arrival presents Beijing an opportunity for a reprieveif it wants, Auslin said.

“If they’re smart, [the Chinese] will give him leeway and see if they can maneuver him into dropping the more forward leaning of Abe’s policies,” said Auslin.

At a time of uncertainty in U.S. politics, with Trump still an underdog in most polls against former Vice President Joe Biden, and both countries rearing for tough negotiations over Tokyo’s payments for American forces stationed in the country, the onus may be on Washington to extend an olive branch to Suga. 

“The Americans should want to show that the relationship with Abe was not a fluke,” said Auslin. The message, he said, should be: “This new forward learning Japan in the world is a sustainable relationship between Tokyo and Washington. It doesn’t rise and fall with Abe.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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