Post-Suga, Tokyo’s ties with Delhi
Just a year after he stepped out of the shadows of Japanese politics, and into the Prime Minister (PM)’s office, Yoshihide Suga has signalled his intention to quit.
While Suga was renowned as a shrewd political infighter during his time as Shinzo Abe’s right hand man, he wore the crown uneasily after ascending to the office of PM. His administration’s perceived inability to manage Covid-19 dealt a crushing blow to his public credibility. Japan’s restrictive vaccine-approval rules meant that the rollout started only in February, months behind other industrialised economies. While vaccination rates have gathered steam recently, only 32.8% of Japan’s population has been fully vaccinated as compared to 64.6% in the United Kingdom and 52.8% in the United States (US). This disparity has not been lost on Japanese voters.
The embattled PM then pinned his hopes on a successful Olympics to restore his flagging political fortunes. This was not to be, as many questioned the wisdom of proceeding with an event of such scale, given Japan’s then-unvaccinated population. The government went ahead, but soon had to change tack by banning all spectators from the events. Rising infection rates in Tokyo also forced Suga into declaring a fourth state of emergency, infuriating an already fatigued nation.
By this point, a pattern had emerged. The Suga government tended to plunge into taking ill-advised public positions before beating a hasty retreat. Public anger manifested itself in the form of a series of stunning local election reversals for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). This forced many in the LDP to reconsider their choice of leader. On August 3, Suga announced that he wouldn’t seek the leadership for another term.
Among the candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring to replace Suga, two stand out. Japan’s maverick administrative reforms minister, Taro Kono, is among the most popular politicians in the country. His advocacy of controversial political positions has enabled him to stand out compared to his generally low-key rivals. There is also former foreign minister Fumio Kishida. The first to declare his candidacy, Kishida has been quick off the starting block, proposing a coronavirus recovery plan and moving to consolidate all the support he can.
Regardless of which candidate wins, little is expected to change in Japan’s foreign policy. Both candidates have expressed support for the nation’s vital alliance with the US. Importantly, both men have made clear that Japan’s more muscular stance on China is likely to continue. Taro Kono termed China a “security threat” to Japan, while even the more dovish Kishida declared that countering China would be a top priority for his administration. Citing concern over China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific, Kono, in particular, called for Japan to align even more closely with Five Eyes, the US-led intelligence grouping. Both candidates are also likely to continue a policy of engagement with initiatives such as Quad, while bolstering Japan’s indigenous defence capabilities as the island-nation sheds its pacifist past.
The next leader will also have to scramble to repair Japan’s tenuous relationship with South Korea, another key player in the region. The two East Asian giants have been locked in an economic and political cold war since 2018, which has threatened regional security and key technology enterprises, while emboldening China. A long-time supporter of stronger ties with South Korea, Taro Kono has acknowledged as much and may have signalled his intent to reconcile earlier this year when he called South Korea an “important partner” in the region.
New Delhi can reasonably expect the Indo-Japanese bilateral relationship to go from strength to strength. The convergence between New Delhi and Tokyo on issues ranging from foreign investment and economic development to security cooperation and high technology innovation is deep enough to make a strong bilateral relationship an enduring feature of the foreign policies of both states.
However, New Delhi does have one potential cause for concern. As the succession battle plays out, many wonder whether the era of revolving door PMs has returned to Japan. Prior to Shinzo Abe’s stable eight-year tenure, Japanese PMs rose and fell with a frequency that left them unable to make credible commitments on the international stage. Abe, a powerful leader who pushed for the creation of Quad and a more confrontational global stance towards China, was a rare exception to this trend. Abe’s bonhomie with PM Narendra Modi, which helped take the Indo-Japanese relationship to the next level, came from the understanding that both men had strong political mandates and could walk the talk at home on foreign policy commitments.
Both nations must continue to work together to build resilient supply chains, closer defence technology ties, and a joint strategy towards China. Crucially, both powers also have to navigate key disagreements over India’s decision not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and transnational data flows. If even Yoshihide Suga, renowned for his political savvy, was unable to hold on for longer than a year, New Delhi may wonder whether a future PM in Tokyo will have the political mandate to be the regional partner that India so desperately needs in the Indo-Pacific. Only time will tell.
Shashank Mattoo is a research associate, strategic studies programme, ORF
The views expressed are personal