The New Japanese Prime Minister’s Policy on China and its Implication for Taiwan

Written by Fumiko Sasaki.

Image credit: Yoshihide Suga by Prachatai/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After almost eight years, Yoshihide Suga became the Japanese prime minister after Shinzo Abe stepped down. This change happened amid a pandemic and a geopolitical crisis. While states have been preoccupied with Covid-19, China has become more aggressive globally. In light of the US presidential election, the Trump administration has toughened its attitude toward China. In Japan, Taro Kono – the Defence Minister until mid-September –  called China a ‘security threat,’ the first time China was officially labelled as such. Suga is reported to be ready to talk to the President of Taiwan. Will Suga be tougher on China?

The examination in this article suggests that Suga will not be tougher but rather promote cooperation with it. Increasing concerns with China among the Japanese people will not significantly benefit Taiwan. Nonetheless, this analysis provides the path for Taiwan to bolster Suga’s support.

The first step to analyse Suga’s China policy is to identify his utmost goal. This will define his policy. My premise here is that his ultimate goal is reelection as the President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) again next September and to remain Japan’s prime minister. Suga has not explicitly mentioned this as his agenda. However, Gerald Curtis, a professor emeritus of Columbia University closely connected with the LDP elites, asserted at a Japan Society event in September that Suga’s goal is indeed reelection.

Any prime minister desires to leave a positive legacy, and one year is too short to do so. In fact, Suga demonstrated his confidence to be a successful prime minister in May 2020, a point in time when it was unimaginable that Abe would resign this year: “If I became a prime minister, I would stay in office for five years.”

If Suga wants to be reelected, whose support is decisive for him? Some say it is the support of the LDP faction leaders because, without it, Suga would not have won the LDP presidential election. They are correct. The faction leaders’ support is imperative.

Nevertheless, they miss the point: Why did the faction leaders support Suga rather than the other two candidates? It is because they thought Suga would be the most popular among the voters. They need an LDP president who can win general elections. For the faction leaders, the LDP remaining in power matters more than expanding their own factions. That is the lesson learned during the period the LDP was out of power between 2009-2012. That is why Fumio Kishida, Abe’s favourite, did not get the factions’ support. Kishida was not popular.

After all, Suga needs voters’ support to be reelected. He needs to please them. However, the question arises ‘what do the voters want? ‘

On September 18, a Nikkei survey asked respondents what they want Suga to do. The highest response was a focus on the coronavirus (58% of the respondents), followed by economic recovery (42%), social security and healthcare, childcare, and fiscal consolidation. Similarly, when asked by Asahi Shinbun which policies matter, 43 LDP prefectural branch leaders out of 47 said the pandemic response, 42 mentioned economic recovery, 36 regional revitalizations, and 26 mentioned foreign policy. Clearly, Suga needs to succeed in controlling the coronavirus and achieving economic recovery to be reelected.

A second Nikkei survey indicates another condition for his reelection. One out of three respondents (32%) wanted him to remain in office only until next September. Suga needs to show results soon. However, economic recovery takes time. This pressure dictates Suga’s attitude toward China.

The pandemic razed Japan’s economy. Its 2020 real GDP growth rate is -28.1%. The quickest way to recover is to trade more with China as it is already showing positive growth. While 83% of the global businesses that responded to another Nikkei survey in August said the pandemic affected their operations and 80.4% would review their supply chains. Nonetheless, 83.5% do not intend to relocate back to Japan. In addition, China’s importance as a market is increasing, in addition to being critical to those supply chains. This was confirmed by 70%  of the firms that responded to a further Nikkei survey taken in September. Nikkei reported that Toyota and Nissan both saw China as their saviour following a global sales dive. Akio Mimura, the President of one of the largest Japanese business associations, emphasized the importance of the market in China.

Tourism is another way China is critical to Japan’s economic recovery. In 2019, almost one-third of all inbound tourists to Japan were from China. This is more than twice that of Taiwan and the three times that of South Korea. The number of Chinese tourists was increasing prior to the pandemic. Also, they are famous for their willingness to spend in Japan. Ravaged tourism in the pandemic underlined the importance of China for the Japanese economy.

It is true that China’s increasing aggression globally, particularly in the East China Sea, and its domestic human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang in the global pandemic crisis have increased the apprehension of China among the Japanese people. Already elevated negative feelings toward China (84.7% in 2019) appear to be even higher this year. 62% of respondents in a survey wanted to cancel, not just postpone, Chinese president X Jinping’s visit to Japan.

Nonetheless, popular priority on the ‘China issue’ is low. Few people have requested that Suga confront China. No substantial protests were observed when Japan did not join the condemnation of China over the Hong Kong National Security Law. Suga has not cancelled Xi’s visit.

Some may question: Even if absent people are requesting Suga to take action, are there not various forces pressuring him to escalate his stance on China, such as the sizeable pro-Taiwan parliamentarian group, the Defence and Foreign Ministries and the US?

Indeed, the pro-Taiwan parliamentarian group has about 300 members in contrast to the 60-member pro-China parliamentarian group. However, the pro-China group has an overwhelming influence in policymaking because it has traditionally had powerful pro-China politicians who were prime ministers and economy-related ministers. Today, that group has Akira Amari, one of the most influential politicians in the LD, Yasutoshi Nishimura, a rising star, and Toshihiro Nikai, the General Secretary of the LDP since 2016 and a kingmaker. Symbolic is the comment by the Chinese government on the allegation that Suga was ready to talk to the Taiwanese President. The spokesperson said, “The Japanese side made it clear the PM will not speak with Tsai.” 

Regarding the ministries’ influence on Suga, it is not decisive today. Following the 2014 reform that shifts more control from bureaucracy to politicians, the prime minister can choose the top bureaucrats. Consequently, bureaucrats are willing to do whatever the prime minister asks them to do to secure senior positions. Likewise, if a seasoned bureaucrat challenges Suga’s position on China, he/she can be replaced.

What of the US pressure on Suga to follow its hawkish line? Any foreign pressure on a country is counter-effective unless its demand exactly matches what the people and the policymakers want. A pressure that is too intense would invite an anti-US feeling among the Japanese people.

Asked about his foreign policy, Suga said that while the US-Japan alliance was core, he would build a stable relationship with neighbouring countries such as China. This is despite 90% of the public holding negative sentiment toward China. Suga’s response represents his China policy: However worried his people are with China and however confrontational the US is against it, Japan needs a good relationship with China for the sake of Japan’s economic recovery. ‘Stable’ in his response suggests his attention to the economy: Stability matters for business.

Given that Japan needs China more than ever in the pandemic crisis, and Suga has little pressure to decouple from China, can Taiwan still bolster Suga’s support? Yes, it can. Taiwan needs to focus on how it can help Suga be reelected. Then how? In a poll taken on September 15, Suga’s approval rate was 65%, suggesting that the policies he has proposed to date have been well received. Taiwan should examine these policies closely to determine how it can help him succeed in accomplishing them.

For example, Suga prioritizes accelerating digitalization of the Japanese government and society. This creates an opportunity for Taiwan, known for its advanced digitalized government, to solicit Suga’s support. Taiwan can assist him with the implementation of Japan’s digitalization. Promoting Taiwanese travel to Japan is another option. Taiwan can help Suga’s reelection as he promises to revitalize regional economies through tourism.

The newly elected prime minister seeks reelection. People are primarily concerned with economic recovery and the pandemic. A devastated Japanese economy needs China in its recovery. Suga must promote a good relationship with China. Nevertheless, if acting strategically, Taiwan can still bolster Suga’s support.

Fumiko Sasaki is an Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Reischauer Center at School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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