The election of Yoshihide Suga as Japan’s 99th Prime Minister on Sept 14, has brought focus on the Ganesha Group – amorphous but important group of short time Members of Parliament without political hereditary. Japan’s politics are full of factions, and Suga, a non-faction LDP member, was a part of this group. These unaffiliated MPs carved out support for him, with Abe’s tactical approval. The Ganesha Group is not a faction. It has no formal membership except a Ganesha souvenir brought back by a well-travelled MP years ago, which gave it its auspicious name. They have not made demands for funds or positions from the LDP, which most factions do. They will remain active if Suga contests the main LDP election next September 2021 and then it may convert to a faction, though that is unlikely.
For now, the vociferous support of the Ganesha group MPs is important within the ruling LDP factions. Suga understood the disadvantages – no political contributions, no ministries, no influence over bureaucracies – faced by such MPs and befriended them in his time as Chief Cabinet Secretary (CCS). They have returned the favour, strengthening his domestic support base.
Internationally, what will Suga mean for Japan’s partners? His lack of foreign policy experience means that he will be guided by the Abe viewpoint. Continuity is what he is familiar with, through several core and peripheral challenges are apparent. He started by calling President Trump, and Australian, Indian and Russian leaders to consolidate the policy that Abe established under the Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP).
Suga reiterated the Japan-U.S. partnership. As part of the continuing defence partnership, the defence budget expanded by 8% this year. This will allow larger acquisitions of U.S.-made aircraft and equipment into Japan’s defence forces. The record budget of $5.5 billion will also focus on cyber and space warfare.
With Australia, Suga sought deeper relations for the FOIP in the post-Covid period. The Quad’s relevance has remained, especially to be firm with China over maritime issues. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that Abe had approved, may be signed early.
During a call with President Putin of Russia, Suga took a constructive approach on health cooperation and bilateral matters. Japan wishes to settle the Northern territories issue. Suga does not want this to remain outstanding, and Abe regretted not completing it. The Russian foreign ministry’s read-out did not mention this aspect.
With South Korea, Japan’s relationship had touched lows. South Korean courts have been seeking compensation from Japanese companies to Korean workers who were conscripted in 1910-45. Consequently, Japan had struck the country off its list of trusted export venues and decreased exports of items vital to hi tech industry. Suga will try and repair this. He spoke with the South Korean President, describing each other as friends with common challenges. How history will adjust to the current realities, will be his challenge.
With China, Suga sought to share responsibility for stability in the region in a call with Xi Jinping. He raised Hong Kong and the Senkaku Islands. An invitation to Xi to visit Tokyo was not renewed, since Japan feels the state of relations does not merit the planning of a visit for now. This relationship will remain his core challenge.
ASEAN remains a priority and Suga plans his initial visits in October to Vietnam and Indonesia, the two countries the Quad could engage with. Abe too had started his 2012 term with a visit to them. Vietnam is the current Chair of ASEAN and Jakarta hosts the ASEAN Secretariat, and led the ASEAN outlook on the Indo Pacific. Despite China’s expansive Belt & Road Initiative in the region, Japan’s infrastructure support in ASEAN is almost twice China’s exposure.
Europe has been the mandate of Foreign Minister Motegi. He visited France and Germany (current EU President), Portugal (next EU President) and then to Saudi Arabia (G20 Chair). The visit to Germany was held virtually as its foreign minister, Heiko Maas was quarantined. He also spoke to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and welcomed a post-Brexit trade deal as well as inclusion of the U.K. into the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, which Japan is championing. (Most of Japan’s EU investment is UK-based.)
Suga is not unfamiliar with India. He has surely met Prime Minister Modi several times during the many bilateral summits with Abe. In their first call on 25 September, the two prime minister’s spoke about their shared values and the India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership. The context of the FOIP is clear and Japan will host the next Quad Foreign Ministers’ meet October 6. As the last two summits were aborted, their agenda for the development of India’s North East and to enhance investment to support regional value chains, will need a reminder. Japan is at the core of India‘s Indo Pacific and economic development policy, as it is among India’s largest economic partners.
For now, therefore, Suga’s foreign policy especially on the Indo Pacific and the Quad, will be a continuum, as will the policy towards ASEAN and the EU. He is using the opportunity for a reset if possible, with South Korean and China. Perhaps the nuances will alter later, especially if he focusses on economic recovery at home rather than strategic investments overseas. Ganesha or Kangiten in Japanese is the symbol of good fortune in business and also a solver of problems. This is certainly an appropriate mascot for the Suga administration, which will need to resolve pending problems and develop good business partnerships in the coming years.
Gurjit Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Germany. He is currently the Chair of the CII Task Force on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
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