With Washington visit, Suga straps into foreign policy pilot’s seat

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga addresses a joint news conference with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on Friday.

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday, kicking off a diplomatic charm offensive that heralds a belated start to the premier’s foreign policy agenda, seven months since he took office.

Following his visit to the United States, Suga will travel to India and the Philippines over the Golden Week holiday season from late April to early May, capped by an appearance at a summit meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in Britain in June.

After assuming office last September, Suga has largely been preoccupied with containing the novel coronavirus fallout, including declaring a state of emergency in January in response to a resurgence in infections. Before traveling to the U.S., the only other courtesy calls Suga had squeezed in as prime minister were to Vietnam and Indonesia in October, leaving conspicuous blanks in his passport that spoke to his administration’s focus on the home front.

While the virus continues to smolder menacingly across Japan, many world leaders and other high-ranking foreign government officials have already been inoculated, meaning in-person meetings are about to be back on the table.

The Japanese government has eyed an ambitious travel itinerary for Suga and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in the months ahead. As a senior Foreign Ministry official said, “Meeting face-to-face to build trust is a cornerstone of diplomacy.”

Suga has attached importance to bolstering the Quad alliance of Japan, the United States, Australia and India, committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific. In November, Suga held talks with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia when he visited Japan. After meeting with Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now the only remaining Quad leader Suga has yet to meet in person, though the upcoming India trip should present an opportunity to check Modi of his list. For Suga’s meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, one key issue on the agenda will be China’s maritime expansion into the South China Sea.

In June, Suga is scheduled to make his international summit debut at the G7 talks. A little over a month later, the curtain is slated to rise on the Tokyo Olympics, toward the end of July.

Whereas former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spearheaded a proactive brand of diplomacy from his perch in the Prime Minister’s Office, Suga has employed a bottom-up approach, relying heavily on the Foreign Ministry to build a foundation through working-level talks, brick by painstaking brick.

Suga inherited a pile of unresolved problems from his predecessor, and negotiations have stagnated on all of these key issues, including how to respond to China’s increasingly hegemonic overtures, North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals and its nuclear and missile development, the northern territory tension with Russia, and ways to improve bilateral relations with South Korea.

But some members of the ruling parties have been watching Suga’s globetrotting with bated breath. As a former Cabinet minister put it, “The prime minister still needs to feel out his own brand of diplomatic strategy through his face-to-face talks with foreign leaders.”