Japan is in churn after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga put in his papers on 3 September 2021. Suga decided to sit out of the race for president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who, in all probability, will get anointed as the next Prime Minister of Japan. Though the LDP enjoys a huge following with a massive vote-bank in Japan, Suga’s forced retreat within a year of entering office indicates the choppy political waters Japan has entered after Shinzo Abe.
After six years as one of Japan’s most popular Prime Ministers, Abe had bowed out owing to health issues. Suga, who stepped into Abe’s shoes in difficult times did not measure up to the party and electorate’s expectations. For the most part, Suga’s tenure was fraught with mismanagement of the novel coronavirus spread that threatened Japan’s economic stability and caused widespread unemployment. Suga’s fall was triggered by the double whammy of less than commendable handling of the pandemic and the relations between him and party elders including Abe and Taro Aso, the longest serving finance minister.
Within Japan and abroad, Suga’s departure is viewed with a mix of anticipation and ambiguity. He was the face of the Japanese government and carried the expectation that Abe’s policies would be continued thereby rendering stability to the central government. Now that Suga has exited, the looming fear is that the political system may be subjected to yet another phase of the ‘Revolving Door’ prime minister era seen in the past, something Japan can ill afford as it battles the pandemic, amidst a fluid strategic jockeying of powers in the Indo-Pacific region.
At the same time, the power struggle between the party elders including Abe, Aso and the Panda hugger Nikai Toshihiro will cast a long shadow on the next party leader who is expected to be elected on September 29. Among the four declared candidates are two women policymakers, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, each seeking to create history by becoming the first female Prime Minister of the country. The two other heavyweights in contention are Fumio Kishida and Taro Kono.
Seen from the Indian viewpoint, the advantage Kishida has over others is the fact that he was the foreign minister in the Abe cabinet, chiselling the Abe doctrine of foreign relations. India has benefitted from Abe’s pioneering diplomacy in the South Asian region and elsewhere. Should Kishida be chosen, there is a hope in Indian policy circles that he will continue the close relationship with India.
In the context of uncertainty, what is near certain is the concern that the next Prime Minister will have her/his job cut out in the face of changing, unpredictable regional and global strategic equations especially with Australia, United Kingdom and United States announcing a new security pact for the Indo-Pacific region, AUKUS. Suga’s exit poses a threat to the stability of the apparatus of an emerging alliance of democracies for a free and open Indo- Pacific that includes India, Australia, and the USA. China will also be looking at the Japanese elections with keen interest to keep the Asian balance of power in its favour.
With respect to Quad, Japan holds a special place, primarily because it was Prime Minister Abe who had conceptualized the group as the ‘confluence of Seas’ taking inspiration from the phrase of Dara Shikoh, the Moghul Prince. Since 2017, Quad has come to occupy an important place in Asian geo-politics, as the United States is pivoting it to keep its relevance in the region apart from the newly stitched AUKUS. India views it as a platform for cooperation with like-minded democracies on issues pertaining to Asia. The members of the group have declared that it is not a hedge against China; rather Quad is the manifestation of a group which seeks to democratize the way geo-politics is played out in Asia.
In this matrix, Japan holds a pole position and Quad’s members would want politico-economic stability in that country. US President Joe Biden, Australia’s Scott Morrison and India’s Narendra Modi would expect the new Japanese Prime Minister to have the kind of understanding and maturity displayed by Shinzo Abe.
However, the situation is more complex than it appears. As a commentator on China-Japan relations says, “China is like wind in Japan, it is everywhere and particularly nowhere.” Japan has extensive and intricate economic and cultural relations with China, its largest trading partner. From the Chinese perspective, decoupling with Japan is undesirable as the latter is fourth in the pecking order of its trading partners. On the other end of the relationship, China is a cause of concern for its eastern neighbour, especially due to its increasing assertion in the South and East China Seas. Chinese adventurism has irked its Asian neighbours including Japan.
As recent as early September 2021, the issue of the Taiwan Strait has put Japan on high alert about Chinese intentions. At the same time, the defence relationship between Japan and Vietnam has made Beijing uncomfortable. The change of guard in Tokyo will have significant implications for China-Japan relations as well as the evolving geo-strategic matrix in the Indo-Pacific.
It will also define how Quad would play out. It is only through Quad and likeminded democracies that the freedom of navigation, and economic and maritime interests of all can be maintained in the Indo-Pacific Ocean region. In this sense, Quad is in the national interest of Japan.
There’s no denying that criticism of Quad being the new Asian NATO is not without basis. All the constituent members of the group have, however, time and again asserted that it is a forum of willing parties with a belief in upholding rule of law in the Asian region. In this sense, giving primacy to Quad does not undermine in any way bilateral relations of any two countries. Japanese elections in such a scenario will become crucial, especially since it will be the first time the Japanese people will cast a popular vote for a leader who will carry forward Abe’s legacy.
Japan’s history of having a string of prime ministers in short bouts may not allow the country to undertake stable policy formulation and its implementation, especially at a time when the stakes are so high for Japan. Going back to the revolving door era is something the country can ill afford.
The writer is a research scholar, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi