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September 21, 2020

Japan after Shinzo Abe’s departure

National

September 21, 2020

Japan has a new Prime Minister after Shinzo Abe’s resignation, which caught the political establishment by surprise and set off a flurry of speculation about his successor. As the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, Abe’s tenure faced a shifting security and economic environment in the Indo-Pacific. Now he leaves pressing domestic and foreign policy challenges to the next prime minister.

The outgoing prime minister had stepped on neighbour China and South Korea’s corns on numerous occasions by visiting Yasukuni Shrine that honours Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals, who had wreaked havoc in China and Korea. Yasukuni Shrine commemorates some 2.5 million Japanese men, women and children who have died in wars but the souls of hundreds of convicted WW2 criminals are also enshrined there. Fourteen Class A war criminals — those who were involved in planning the war — are among those honoured. They include war-time leader General Hideki Tojo, who was executed for war crimes in 1948. He had also locked horns with China over the Diaoyu Islands dispute or the Senkaku Islands as Japan calls them. Under Abe’s premiership, on 24 March 2020, the Japanese government approved new school textbooks renewing the claim that Senkaku Islands are Japan’s inherent territory although China has genuine ownership of the islands known as the Diaoyu and its affiliated islands.

Japan’s governing party has elected Yoshihide Suga as its new leader to succeed Shinzo Abe. Suga, 71, was serving as chief cabinet secretary in Shinzo Abe’s administration and is considered a close ally of the outgoing prime minister and is likely to continue his predecessor’s policies. Suga won the vote for the presidency of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by a large margin, taking 377 of a total of 534 votes from lawmakers and regional representatives. He saw off two other contenders - Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, and Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general and one time defence minister. Taking over mid-term, Mr. Suga is expected to stay in post until elections due in September 2021.

Born to a family of strawberry farmers, Suga is a veteran politician and was chosen because he was considered as the best ‘continuity’ candidate who would follow the same path as Shinzo Abe.

Suga San has a reputation of efficiency and practicality, although some political pundits perceive the septuagenarian politician to be cautious and sluggish. One of his most prominent appearances recently was during the transition from Emperor Akihito, who abdicated, to his son Naruhito in 2019. It fell to Suga San to unveil the name of the new Reiwa era to the Japanese and global public. Yet, while he was the favourite to clinch the LDP leadership after Shinzo Abe’s resignation, it is much less clear whether he will lead the party in next year’s general election. Observers suggest that by then, the party dynamic could shift to put a more vibrant candidate at the helm who can reach a wider general electorate.

Japanese people will feel relieved that Suga has promised to continue with “Abenomics”, Shinzo Abe’s signature economic policy that was designed to stimulate the world’s third biggest economy through monetary easing, fiscal spending and structural reforms. But like his predecessor he will first need to tackle the pressing demands of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ahead of his election Suga had pledged to expand Covid-19 testing and source vaccines for Japan by the first half of 2021. He also said he would raise the minimum wage, promote agricultural reforms and boost tourism. On foreign policy, too, he is expected to follow in Shinzo Abe’s footsteps, prioritizing Japan’s long-running alliance with the US while also maintaining stable relations with China.

Currently Japan is struggling with the global pandemic COVID-19, which has affected Japanese economy adversely. Shinzo Abe’s trademark kickstarting the economy had failed, plunging the once economic giant into recession and gloom.

China has welcomed the transition, its Foreign Office spokesperson stated that Suga said on multiple occasions that it is essential to build stable diplomatic relations with China and other neighboring countries, and China appreciates that. Both countries enjoy important positions in world economy and international relations. To develop long-term, stable, friendly and cooperative relations between China and Japan conforms to the fundamental interests of the two peoples and the widespread expectation of the international community. The Chinese FO spokesperson reiterated that China is ready to work with the new Japanese government, in accordance with the principles and spirit set out in the four political documents between China and Japan, to continuously consolidate political mutual trust, strengthen bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields and jointly work for new progress in China-Japan relations.

Amidst the plethora of unfinished agendas, Shinzo Abe also leaves behind the government’s plans to reform the post-war pacifist constitution. Abe wanted to change a section in the constitution to formally recognize Japan’s military, which is currently called the Self Defence Force and is essentially barred from participating in any international military mandates. Abe had failed in his goal to resolve several wartime legacies, including normalizing ties with North Korea and signing a peace treaty with Russia to formally end their hostilities in World War II.

Nobuo Kishi has been appointed as the Japanese Defense Minister. The various areas of possible conflict in the South China Sea and the region necessitate that the defense ministries of Japan and China should strengthen dialogue and exchanges, continuously enhance security mutual trust, promote the building of constructive bilateral security relations and jointly safeguard regional and international peace and stability. Yoshihide Suga has his work cut out for him in tumultuous times.