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Global Econopolitics

How Suga administration can succeed in post-Abe diplomacy

  Executive Research Director


The resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who held the longest incumbent record in Japan’s constitutional history, poses a risk that Japan will return to a country which top political leaders have only limited international profiles. For Mr. Yoshihide Suga, who became the next prime minister of Japan, it is essential to view the world from a broad perspective and act efficiently by wisely combining ideas and realism with dynamic diplomatic skills.

Better external presence

Mr. Abe’s diplomatic evaluation may vary, but during the long-term administration, it was a merit that he approached influential global players such as India and European countries and built closer relationships with a sense of solid political purpose while placing the highest priority on the Japan-US alliance. In the face of China’s rapid rise, he probably and rightly thought it was important to give perception that Japan is a reliable partner in Asia.

The feud between the United States and China has deepened, and the international order after World War II is swaying. Before thinking about Japan’s next challenges, I would like to try giving an overview of the paths that the US and Europe, which have led and supported the international order, have taken, and look at the whereabouts of the story they are drawing.

Election factors on US foreign policy

The US presidential election has entered the final stage, with the issue of “more Trump”or “no more Trump”. Hard line attitude against China by the Trump administration, accelerated by the coming election, have invited China to act also hard against US and it has reached a point where it will not be no-side even after the election,

Harsh perceptions of China by the US administration are deep-rooted and will undoubtedly continue regardless of the winner of next election. However, even if there is no big difference in recognition, there could be a big difference in what to do as a policy. The Trump administration placed the highest priority on earning points in trade negotiations, but since this spring it has expanded its front line in many directions and has severely criticized China’s Communist Party system. When it comes to the appropriateness of ideology and regime, dialogues and negotiations will be extremely difficult.

Without updating multilateral system

Mr. Trump’s blueprint to get the second term of the presidency with a strong US economy has collapsed due to the corona crisis. There is an impression that Mr. Trump is trying to use foreign policy to counter such a situation.

Founded in the year of the end of the World War II, the United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. The UN and the multilateral system based on international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have been led by the United States after the war. China’s economic development also fully benefited from this international order.

However, due to the Trump administration’s America first principle and the confrontation between the US and China, there is no active movement to update and revitalize the multilateral system to suit the times. The UN Security Council reform, which was once actively discussed, is going nowhere.

Big story of the US

The United States survived the Cold War with the Soviet Union and was called as unipolar in the world in 1990s. However, the failure of the Iraq War (2003) and the financial crisis (Lehman Shock, 2008) put a big brake on the momentum. Although the Obama administration was positive about international cooperation, it did not rebuild and strengthened the multilateral system, and now we have the Trump administration.

That means the US faces the rise of China without updating the post-war system. Instead of rebuilding it, the Trump administration repeats actions to undermine the United Nations and the multilateral regime. The big story of how to maintain and develop the US-led international order now seems to be going to be replaced by the story of the struggle between two nations about how the US as a hegemon will confront the emerging power of China.

Turning point of history

Of course, China’s responsibility of self-righteous claims and actions are also tremendous. The speed of the US-China confrontation, as if we are watching the fast-forwarding of the video, is nothing short of unusual.

If Mr. Trump will be reelected, the transition to the story of the US-China conflict will be decisive. Will the US have the intention to rebuild the international order that has continued for 75 years after the war, or will it abandon it? In November, what the US voters choose will be such a crossroad in history.

Rebuilding EU integration project

As another big story after World War II, it is worth looking at the path that Europe is taking. That is a story centered on regional integration that began with the aim of peace and stability in Europe. There was a move that could be an important turning point this summer; establishment of a reconstruction fund for corona crisis, which was agreed at the European Union summit in July.

The fund, which amounts 750 billion euros, is mainly aimed at supporting southern European countries that were hit hard by the corona virus, but that is not the only implication. First, it will implement a debt sharing and fiscal transfer mechanism that somewhat compensates for the EU’s weakness in the absence of fiscal consolidation by providing some countries with market-raised funding across member states.

Secondly, it was able to overcome conflicts within the region based on the cooperative play between Germany and France and appeal for EU unity. Thirdly, in the EU’s medium-term budget plan including the reconstruction fund, it is noteworthy that the EU showed an intention to implement economic growth by focusing on environment and digital. If the reconstruction fund works well, it could regain some of the EU’s recently stagnant centripetal force and trigger a rebuilding of the European integration project.

Stagnant period

The European integration, which began after World War II, steadily progressed with the completion of the huge single market followed by the introduction of the euro currency. Furthermore, the Central and Eastern European countries, which became free due to the end of the Cold War, were welcomed as members of EU from 2004, and the integration entered an unexplored territory in terms of both depth and scale.

However, the situation has changed since then. European citizens had become worried about too much or too fast integration and somewhat dissatisfied with feeling of being controlled by EU bureaucrats. In 2005, a draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe was rejected by referendums in France and the Netherlands.

Around that time, European integration entered a period of stagnation, and since 2010, the EU has been hit by a series of hard events such as the euro crisis, the refugee crisis from the Middle East, the growth of populist political power, and Brexit.

Keep a story running

Nevertheless, both euro and the EU have survived without collapse, and no country other than Britain is heading to leave the EU. It has become clear that many European citizens are seeking the right balance, rather than denying integration or the EU itself. Populism and nationalism seemed to have retreated to some extent at least for the time being, and the new European Commission, which was launched in December last year, was trying to revitalize the EU by focusing on the environment and digital.

It was such timing that the corona crisis occurred. If responded poorly, sense of disappointment that the EU cannot be reliable could spread. The success or failure of the reconstruction fund has become so crucial and it is not an exaggeration to say that it will determine the future of the EU.

The exit of the corona pandemic has not yet been seen, and in addition to the North-South problem in the EU, there are still many concerns such as some Eastern European countries confronting the EU with the issue of rule-of-law. But with the reconstruction fund agreement, the EU has made it clear that it will not fail the big post-war story of European integration.

How to draw a Japan’s story

So what is the story of Japan? For a long time after World War II, Japan has maintained a stable security environment based on its alliance with the United States and has been on the path to economic growth. The primary reason of supporting the US decision on going to the Iraq War was not by considering the appropriateness of the war, but to show a posture of being close to the United States.

However, the rise of China has complicated the overall picture. There is no doubt that the United States is becoming more important to deter China and maintain balance of power in Asia. But, it is totally a nightmare if escalation of confrontation between the US and China eventually lead to a war in Asia, and conversely, it will also be a problem if the US changes its policy and choose the appeasement route to China and withdraw from Asia.

As a close ally of the US, both “risk of getting involved” and “risk of being abandoned” must be avoided. It is essential to adhere to the national strategy centered on the Japan-US alliance and at the same time move with wide scope in order to complement and strengthen the alliance with the US.

Leadership in completing the TPP

What is important for Japan is smart and strong diplomacy which encourages the United States for maintaining solid commitment in Asia and multinationalism while increases the number of peers who pursue common interests. Typical examples under the Abe administration were the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was agreed by 11 countries without the US, and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU.

Regarding TPP, Japan is admired in countries in Asia and Europe for taking leadership after the United States withdrew from it. While appealing the close relationship between President Trump and Prime Minister Abe, Japan was able to show by the TPP that it sometimes takes the lead in diplomacy with its own initiative. This looked fresh in the eyes of other countries and well received.

Taking high expectation as a chance

With new realities of the world, what Japan is needed is a vision of how to build a solid and stable international order. It is about showing the values and rules to be followed and taking the initiative of coordination to realize them.

Suga administration has just started from where expectations for Japan are quite high. He should take this as a good chance and must avoid the foolishness of going back to a shadowy country.

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