Suga’s diplomacy with the U.S. off to a good start

With Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga having been in office for half a year, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Kenichiro Sasae, president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, about Suga’s diplomatic skills. The following is excerpted from the interview.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced at the time of his inauguration that he would follow the diplomatic path of the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by emphasizing the Indo-Pacific region while maintaining the Japan-U.S. alliance as the cornerstone.

In his first phone conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden, the two reaffirmed that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. Biden also expressed the basic stance of the United States to realize the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision. From that perspective, Suga’s diplomacy has made a good start.

A face-to-face Japan-U.S. summit meeting will be held in April. Tokyo and Washington appear to be in good alignment and are making progress in their cooperation.

Biden is not as outspoken in his opinions as former U.S. President Donald Trump. I think it would be more natural for Japan and the United States to follow the traditional style of diplomacy, in which the two governments develop issues at the administrative level and then reach an agreement at the summit level.

During the Abe Cabinet, the National Security Council (NSC) was established, and Abe himself had many opportunities to take the lead in diplomacy. But there is no need for Suga to do the exact same thing.

There is naturally a difference in the personal styles of diplomacy between Abe and Suga. The prime minister should do what he is most comfortable doing.

The threat posed by the rise of China is becoming more acute in the Indo-Pacific region. China is seeking to change the status quo by coercion, and aims to create a fait accompli.

The true value of alliances is tested when they face major challenges, and of course we can say the same thing in peacetime. In terms of policy toward China, it is important to expand and deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Expansion refers to the enhancement of regional cooperation, such as the Quad, a framework consisting of Japan, the United States, Australia and India. Deepening refers to the issue of Japan’s defense capabilities. The current Japan-U.S. joint exercises and integrated operations of the U.S. forces and Self-Defense Forces should be examined to determine whether the state of operations is sufficient.

Show anger if needed

In order for Japan to play a greater role in the world than it does now, it will have to make efforts and sacrifices. No one wants to use force, but the concept of force needs to be more in line with international standards. This is not to say that we should use unlimited force, but to create a form of defense that is appropriate for Japan.

Japan is said to have never fired a gun since the end of World War II. If other countries think Japan would never fire a gun, they will become bolder. We need to make an effort not to let them take Japan’s calm and peaceful attitude for granted.

When we are angry, we should show anger. I think it would be good to have a national debate on the possession of the capability to attack enemy missile bases.

China’s future ambition is to have military power equal to that of the United States. It is important for Japan to be prepared for China to bulk up in the medium to long term. It is necessary for Suga to speak frankly to China, stating that “it is no longer permissible to pursue a one-sided approach,” from his standpoint of coexistence rather than hostility.

Japan should share its concerns with the West on human rights issues in China. The question is, if the West imposes sanctions on China, to what extent will Japan go along? Traditionally, Japan has taken a cautious stance. We should be willing to criticize verbally and at the same time be open to taking certain measures.

Abe held a series of meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and made efforts to negotiate a peace treaty that includes the northern territories issue. There was a time when expectations were high, but Russia has been backing away from this issue. This is a good opportunity to review whether it is a good idea to just keep moving forward.

Meanwhile, Japan-South Korea relations are in a very difficult situation. South Korea is beginning to send signals to Japan, seeking to improve relations, which is better than constant confrontation. Yet the question is the content of the dialogue. The Suga Cabinet should maintain the position that South Korea should consider corrective measures while always keeping the door open.

Kenichiro Sasae / Japan Institute of International Affairs president

Served as director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry and vice foreign minister. In 2012-18, he served as ambassador to the United States, where he was responsible for negotiations with the administrations Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. He has been president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, since June 2018. He is 69 years old.