Suga's challenges

By Purnendra Jain, Emeritus Professor, Department of Asian Studies, University of Adelaide

Last weekend’s G7 summit in Britain was the first major multilateral outing for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, a novice in foreign affairs. Japan expert Purnendra Jain writes Suga, the only Asian leader there, was able to return to Tokyo confident he had placed a Japanese and Asian stamp on the agenda of the rich-nations’ club. But at home Suga faces big domestic challenges that cast a shadow over his leadership.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga must have had moments of trepidation while preparing to attend the G7 summit at Cornwall in England held last weekend. While most other G7 leaders are well-versed in foreign policy and comfortable rubbing shoulders with their counterparts, Suga is a novice in foreign affairs, as his entire previous political career was spent in domestic politics, making deals in smoke-filled backroom party and government meetings.

Suga had made a short trip to Southeast Asia visiting Vietnam and Indonesia in late October 2020 soon after he took office from Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and became the first foreign leader to meet newly-elected President Joe Biden at the White House, in April 2021. But this was his first face-to-face meeting at a high-profile multilateral forum with the leaders of six other members of the rich nations’ club, on this occasion together with the heads of government of Australia, South Africa and South Korea (India’s Narendra Modi decided against travelling).

Suga’s inexperience and his lack of confidence in foreign affairs is abundantly clear as he often seeks advice and guidance from his predecessor and mentor, Shinzo Abe, who had mastered the art of dealing with world leaders, making powerful speeches and introducing new initiatives. Suga reportedly visited Abe’s chamber in the parliamentary building before his meeting with Joe Biden and received a briefing from Abe prior to his travel for the G7 meeting.

At the time of his departure for Britain, Suga tweeted: “At the upcoming G7 Summit I will have frank discussions on the critical issues of COVID-19, climate change, the economy, and regional issues with the leaders of the other G7 nations, which share universal values. In doing so, I will contribute to the summit discussions by stating Japan’s positions clearly.”

Although not stated in this tweet, two issues preoccupied his mind. One was to receive unconditional endorsement for Japan’s controversial plans to hold the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in July from all the assembled leaders in bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the G7 and from the G7 collectively. The other was to establish his credentials as Japan’s new leader at the G7 by persuading leaders to include some of Tokyo’s key strategic policies such as the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept and a united voice on China’s unacceptable behaviour in the joint statement.

Yoshihide Suga and Emmanuel Macron greet each other, G7
Japan PM Yoshihide Suga greets French President Emmanuel Macron with COVID-safe elbow bump, Cornwall, UK - June 12, 2021. Image credit: Prime Minister of Japan's Office.

It appears that Suga achieved both aims. In the roughly 14,000-word Summit Communiqué issued on 13 June, the leaders concluded by declaring a “Shared Agenda for Global Action”, in which they reiterated their “support for the holding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in a safe and secure manner as a symbol of global unity in overcoming COVID-19”. China, of course, was the proverbial elephant in the room. Suga must have returned to Tokyo fully satisfied with his performance. He held bilateral talks with most leaders except South Korean president Moon Jae-in because Japan and South Korea remain estranged over contested war-time issues.

Japan’s role in the G7/G8

Japan is a founding member of the G7 which was established in the mid-1970s following the Middle East oil crisis and ensuing economic challenges that then faced the global community. Japan was, and still remains, the only non-Western and Asian country to sit at the high table dominated by European and North American states represented by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France. Tokyo was admitted for two reasons: it was the world’s second largest economy and could represent the interests of Asian and other non-European nations.

Although no longer as relatively powerful economically as it once was, the G7 still is an influential gathering even after the establishment of the G20 in 1999 that aimed to accommodate rising powers such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa. The G7 lost influence during the Trump years, as evidenced by the cancellation of the 2020 summit. But the value of the forum is being reclaimed under the new US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the host of the 2021 summit.

Japan has played a significant role as a member of the G7, as host of previous G7 meetings and by actively engaging with the G7 agenda on thorny issues like the Kosovo crisis of 1999. However, Japan’s role rarely has been highlighted because of a preference for quiet diplomacy over leading from the front. As an Asian nation that understands other Asian nations more deeply than fellow G7 members, Japan often faces awkward moments in dealing with its European and American counterparts over Asian matters. After the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989, Tokyo took a very different perspective on China than other G7 members. At the G7 meeting in Paris a month later, Tokyo worked behind the scenes to persuade other G7 members to avoid isolating China and itself set an example by taking less stringent measures against China.

When the proposal to expand the G7 into a G8 arose in 1998, Tokyo disagreed with other members on the inclusion of Russia. In Tokyo’s view, Russia was not a world leading economy because Moscow at the time was a recipient of aid from developed countries (Moscow later resumed aid donations). Nonetheless, Russia did join the G7, only to be expelled in 2014.

More recently at the 2019 G7 meeting in Biarritz, Japan was frustrated by a one-page communique that “failed to mention important Asian security issues such as North Korea, or the South China Sea and maritime security in the region”. European leaders then were simply mesmerised by China’s charm diplomacy and were not willing to listen closely to concerns raised by Japan.

In a marked contrast to the 2019 summit, the 2021 summit included most of Japan’s concerns and ideas in the long communique, as most European nations now have embraced the Indo-Pacific concept and recognise deep concerns about China’s behaviour.

The Road Ahead

Last weekend’s long joint communiqué has set a wide-ranging agenda, covering both short-term and long-term initiative. One of them is a planned Build Back Better World (B3W) infrastructure program to challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has suffered some reputation damage as “debt-trap diplomacy”. But how the G7 agenda will be achieved is unclear. There is no roadmap or clear plan of action at this stage. In some areas, Japan can be a critical resource in implementing G7 goals. Take for example, “quality” infrastructure development. Here Japan has significant knowhow and experience. Tokyo has long been involved in building infrastructure in developing nations through its development cooperation program and has engaged Africa through the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) since 1993. However, planning is required in coordination with other G7 countries and observer states because past attempts have not produced significant results. The 2016 Asia-Africa Growth Corridor plan involving India and Japan has not taken off nor has the Australia, Japan and US Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment in the Indo-Pacific, announced in 2018. Even the Blue Dot Network remains only an idea and is yet to get off the ground.

Given the chequered history of cooperation at the multilateral level, and the difference in political cultures and geo-political concerns between Japan and the Europeans, a long and winding road lies ahead.

Suga and Japan’s Domestic Politics

For Suga, his immediate concerns are success in staging the Olympics next month and in keeping the virus under control. These are critical for Suga’s political survival in the face of a strong public backlash over the government’s handling of both issues. Polls suggest 80 percent of people are opposed to the Olympics. With a general election due by October at the latest, Suga’s political future remains uncertain. Suga also must face a party presidential election in September this year. Japan’s political succession plan is unclear. However, no matter whether Suga continues or is replaced by another prime minister, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is likely to stay in power, and Tokyo’s commitments to the G7 and to multilateralism, free and open Indo-Pacific, rule-based and liberal trade, democratic values, and security alliance with the United States are enduring characteristics of its foreign policy objectives.

Purnendra Jain is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide.

Banner image: Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga and wife arrive in the UK ahead of the 2021 G7 Summit - June 10, 2021. Credit: Prime Minister of Japan's Office.