JULIAN RYALL
Japan Correspondent

Suga

TOKYO, Japan — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is enjoying something of a honeymoon bounce in the weeks after he took over from Shinzo Abe, with public opinion polls indicating that he has the support of fully 65% of the Japanese electorate.

Suga named his first cabinet on Sept. 15, with 63% of those responding to a survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper saying they have high hopes that he is the best person to handle the most pressing issues facing the nation — notably the coronavirus pandemic, the consequent economic crisis and Tokyo’s relations with the United States, as well as its immediate neighbors in Asia and the Pacific.

Even before he was rubber-stamped as prime minister, Suga made it clear that he is aware that much of his experience is in the domestic sphere and that he has relatively limited knowledge of international affairs. To go some way to remedying that deficiency, he has said he intends to lean heavily on his immediate predecessor, as Abe built up close relations with leaders around the world during his eight years in power.

And that is being taken as a firm indicator that Suga plans to follow closely in the footsteps of Abe on everything from economic policy to the way in which Tokyo cooperates with its international partners.

U.S. Marines are shown at Camp Hansen in Okinawa in Japan on Feb. 22, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Rim

For Guam, that means he remains committed to the transfer of thousands of U.S. troops from Okinawa Prefecture to the island, that financial support for that relocation remains in place and that work on an expanded U.S. military base at Henoko, in the north-east of Okinawa, will go ahead as scheduled.

In the travel sector, Suga’s government has already moved to open Japan’s borders to a limited number of businesspeople, students attending Japanese universities and permanent foreign residents. There are no firm plans for reopening to tourists without the strict two-week quarantine requirement, but given the importance of the sector to the national economy and the recently reiterated commitment for Tokyo to host the delayed Olympic Games next year, the government is undoubtedly hoping that it might be possible to welcome tourists into Japan and to permit travelers to fly to Guam and elsewhere sooner rather than later.

“Abe had a very good relationship with President [Donald] Trump as well as the rest of the U.S. Congress and Suga clearly intends to continue Abe’s approach to dealing with the U.S,” Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, told the Journal. 

Underlining Suga’s desire for a closer alliance with the U.S/, he spoke with Trump by phone four days after he assumed the post of prime minister, using the occasion to reiterate the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance as the cornerstone of Tokyo’s foreign policy.

Suga has been busy brushing up his diplomatic credentials in his early days in office, holding talks by phone with the leaders of Great Britain, France, Germany, South Korea and India, while he is also expected to host Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as early as November, Australian media reported.

The visit is designed to reinforce strategic cooperation in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, The Australian reported.

James Brown, a professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said it is possible that the two leaders will sign an agreement on visiting forces, which would permit members of Japan’s Self Defense Forces to train in Australia and Australian units to train in Japan.

“This is a major landmark for Japan as it supplements the security relationship that Tokyo has with the United States,” Brown said. “Tokyo has never had an agreement like this with any nation other than the U.S. and it reinforces Australia as Japan’s closest security partner after Washington.”

Yet it is Tokyo’s links with Beijing that are attracting the most attention as China attempts to exert more pressure over the region, targeting in particular Taiwan, disputed atolls and reefs in the South China Sea and Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea that Beijing now claims as its sovereign territory. 

Analysts say that Suga must walk something of a tightrope with respect to Beijing, balancing economic considerations with the desire to halt China’s seemingly inexorable desire for power and territory. 

Trump told the Japanese leader that he could call him “at any time” and the two leaders have reiterated their commitment to the Japan-U.S. security treaty, although the Japanese leader will be watching the outcome of the imminent U.S. presidential election very closely.

Traditionally, Japanese governments have favored Republican leaders that have talked tough on security in the Asia-Pacific region, but there is a degree of concern in Tokyo at the unpredictability of the present administration. The biggest worry is that should Trump win a second term in the White House, he will bring additional pressure on South Korea to pay more for U.S. troops that are stationed in the country. And that would serve as a blueprint for Washington to demand a sharp increase in the amount that Tokyo also pays for U.S. troops on its soil. mbj