Beijing and Washington watched closely Monday as Japan’s ruling party cleared the way for Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to take over later this week from his retiring boss, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and take up the task of balancing Tokyo’s delicate relations with the U.S. and China.
Mr. Suga, 71, Mr. Abe’s longtime right-hand man, is widely expected follow the broad outlines of Mr. Abe’s legacy, elevating Japan as a key backer of U.S. security interests in Asia while also nurturing economic and diplomatic relations with China, the country’s biggest trading partner.
But Mr. Abe’s announcement two weeks ago to resign due to chronic health problems has put an unsettled region further on edge, with questions of whether the less charismatic Mr. Suga is up to the demands of the job at a time when China, North Korea and even the U.S. and South Korea present challenging problems.
Chinese leaders made it clear Monday that anticipate a Suga government will attempt to “curry favor from both” Washington and Beijing.
“While the U.S. is Japan’s sole ally, China is Japan’s biggest trading partner,” the Global Times, the state-controlled newspaper that frequently echoes the line of the ruling Communist Party, said an editorial Monday.
“As long as there is no real risk for a war between China and Japan, Japan will not completely lean toward the U.S. to coordinate with the latter’s strategic suppression on China,” the paper said, adding that “in the foreseeable future, China should not count on ‘wooing’ Japan over to its side.”
The Tokyo-based Nikkei Asian Review noted that Mr. Suga comes to power as “East Asia is caught in what could be termed a new cold war between the U.S. and China.”
The question is whether Mr. Suga, an insider of Japan’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but also who was known for rarely traveling outside Japan, can navigate the tense geopolitics the way Mr. Abe did for nearly a decade.
Mr. Suga’s victory in an internal LDP vote Monday virtually guarantees his election as prime minister in a Japanese parliamentary vote Wednesday because of the majority held in the body — known as the Diet — by party’s ruling coalition.
Despite having a studiously low-key image, Mr. Suga has for years been a powerful player inside Mr. Abe’s administration, serving as the government’s top spokesperson in his role of chief Cabinet secretary. Not seen as an early favorite to succeed Mr. Abe, he amassed strong support in Tokyo and the regions when the ruling party went to vote.
The son of a strawberry grower in northern Japan’s Akita prefecture, Mr. Suga vowed to “devote all of myself to work for the nation and the people,” with an early agenda focused on problems closer to home.
He has said his top priorities will be fighting the coronavirus and turning around a battered Japanese economy. He faces the task of having to establish a good relationship with whoever wins the upcoming U.S. presidential race, and will also have to decide what to do with the Tokyo Olympics, which were pushed back to next summer due to the coronavirus.
More broadly, it remains to be seen whether a Suga government will push certain priorities that defined the Abe era — specifically the outgoing prime minister’s unachieved goal of rewriting Japan’s U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution and resetting Japan’s security profile in the region and the world.
Debate has long raged across Japan over whether the constitution, written during American occupation shortly after World War II, should be revised so the nation can better prepare itself against a rising China and North Korean nuclear threats.
Mr. Abe declared his own reinterpretation of the clause renouncing war to allow Japanese forces to train for overseas missions, such as U.N. peacekeeping deployments, and to provide defensive support to allies under attack.
But Mr. Suga may leave that fight for another day, giving his economic priorities and the COVID-19 fight. His base in the faction-ridden LDP is relatively thin, but Japanese political watchers say his ability to get things behind the scenes should not be underestimated.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” is Mr. Suga’s motto.
His ability to wield power swiftly as prime minister may help Mr. Suga avoid disruptions in the U.S.-Japan relationship — particularly on such potentially sensitive issues as the status of some 50,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan.
Mr. Suga has previously said he wants to maintain communication and develop strategic ties with China and South Korea despite difficult relations with both in the Abe era.
Some analysts caution the dynamic Mr. Abe will prove a tough act to follow for the bland Mr. Suga.
“Unless Suga reveals hidden zest, Japan may be fated to return to its cycle of short-lived and unmemorable prime ministers, maneuvered by factions within the Liberal Democratic Party that has ruled Japan for almost all the last 75 years,” Tokyo-based writer and analyst William Sposato wrote in Foreign Policy.com Monday.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.