Continuity, economy and militarism: Japan's new PM Yoshihide Suga has his plate full

New DelhiWritten By: Gautam MukherjeeUpdated: Sep 18, 2020, 10:33 AM IST


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Suga may well see in an economic boom for Japan if he plays his cards right. That the pushback to China is backed by the Western powers provides an excellent backstop.

On ailing but long-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s resignation, earlier this month, Japan’s Conservative Liberal Democratic party (LDP), elected his Chief Cabinet Secretary as Party leader. 

Most of the LDP factions united to give Suga a 70% majority on September 14th.  Two days later, Yoshihide Suga was elected prime minister by Japan’s Diet. 

71-year-old Suga has, in recognition of the support he has received, swiftly reappointed most of the heavyweights in Shinzo Abe’s outgoing cabinet.  However, a new face is attracting both interest and attention. 

It is Shinzo Abe’s younger brother Nobuo Kishi, appointed defence minister. 

The Abe cabinet’s defence minister, Taro Kano, also a former foreign minister, was shifted to Administrative Reforms.

With increased Chinese and North Korean belligerence on Japan’s doorstep,  Shinzo Abe was already building a consensus on whether Japan should militarise more sharply. In fact, Japan has been steadily improving its indigenous armaments industry under Abe.  

Now Kishi, though new to the defence arena, will take the agenda forward. In a pointedly pacifist Japan post WWII, it was only allowed a token military capacity. Japan has been long dependent on American military protection, including its nuclear weapons umbrella. This protection applies to Taiwan in the region as well. 

But giving the vastly altered political, economic and military landscape in 2020, the time has come to accelerate Japan’s own military preparedness in the face of an ever-growing Chinese military.  

Japan, like Taiwan, recognises it needs a much improved and bigger offensive capacity in the event of war. It must vastly upgrade its Army, Navy and Air Force. It needs weapons that can strike missile launch sites in North Korea and China. 

That Shinzo Abe signed a treaty with India for mutual access to each other’s military facilities just days before handing over the baton is indicative. Suga and Kishi are likely to take matters forward.

Economic issues to take centrestage for Suga

As the world’s third-largest, Japan’s economy, already long in recession, plagued by indebtedness,  an ageing population, labour shortages, is now in distress. The Covid-19 pandemic has damaged the Japanese economy further. For Suga, as he has already indicated, economic issues will take centre stage. He wants to move sharply on greater digitisation for example.

There is the difficult question on when to hold the Tokyo Olympics, expected to be a substantial revenue earner, but postponed for a year by the pandemic already. 

Economic issues may also become crucial in order to win the next elections. This even though the Japanese opposition is in fair disarray.

A number of Japanese manufacturers are being assisted financially by the Japanese government to move out of China. They will relocate, to India, and other countries. Japan enjoys a very good relationship with Vietnam also. 

Taro Aso, a former prime minister was retained by Suga as the finance minister, as was Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s seniormost diplomat, as foreign minister. Suga himself has travelled very little outside Japan, though he has been successful at developing tourism to Japan. 

Overall, Yoshihide Suga is credited with being an excellent administrator. He was virtually Abe’s shadow prime minister. 

Son of a strawberry farmer

Suga has risen to the top job in Japanese politics despite having no family background in it. He is the son of a strawberry farmer from Akita Prefecture. Suga is certainly no political blueblood like his mentor Shinzo Abe. But this may work well for him and the LDP with the every-man on the street.  

What's in it for India?

This change of guard in Japan comes at a critical juncture for India and its place in the world.  Its nearly five-month-old military and economic confrontation with China promises to be a game-changer. 

It is qualitatively different from the policy positions India has taken in the past. This time, India is pushing back against Chinese imperialism in no uncertain terms. The outcome is thought by many learned observers, as likely to go in India’s favour. 

This, if an armed conflict, even a two-front war breaks out, involving both China and its ally Pakistan.  India is battle-hardened with professional soldiers, and China is practically untested and has a largely conscripted military low on morale and ability.

The way the world is looking at this stand-off is already significant. Even before it has come to war, it is already impacting strategic calculations. The ground is shifting in South Asia, the Indian Ocean region, West Asia, South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. That India is standing up to Chinese bullying without flinching is an inspiration to many other countries.  

It is also germane to the US and NATO alliance and its notions of geo-politics in the region, the Indo-Russian relationship, the emerging Quad Nations of Japan, the US, Australia and India. It has intensified the developing relationship with Israel and the Gulf countries of West Asia. They too are overcoming old dogmas and forging historical ties never seen before. China may be with Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, but is it working for them?

Japan watches China

China is in truth on the backfoot. This is of course, not just because of India. Japan is watching closely. The freedom of the seas and its sea lanes in the South China Sea, the safety of the Japanese islands in the East China Sea, affect Japan - but others in the region as well.  South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia, are all being intimidated by China as well. 

Several countries are reeling from the debt traps they have walked into with the Chinese, including Cambodia and Sri Lanka, and of course, Pakistan. Others, like Bangladesh and Myanmar are teetering on the brink. 

China’s sharp trade practices, including dumping of goods at vastly reduced prices to cripple competition and industry from elsewhere, is also now being challenged with boycotts and sanctions. 

All this flux for China could well present huge economic opportunity for Japan, as more and more countries turn away from predatory China following India’s lead. 

Suga may well see in an economic boom for Japan if he plays his cards right. That the pushback to China is backed by the Western powers provides an excellent backstop.

The relationship with India, is ripe for improving to the next level. It has been warming up ever since the arrival of the Modi administration in 2014 and the personal chemistry between Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi. Now,  if both countries strike while the iron is hot, it could assume stellar proportions.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)