Referred to as the man who “rarely smiles” and someone with “little to no charisma”, Yoshihide Suga has nevertheless established himself as an influential administrator. Suga has been capable of unifying the political, bureaucratic and diplomatic establishments in Japan with little hassle.
After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement to retire early in lieu of worsening health conditions, Diet, the Japanese parliament, nominated Suga as the “Abe substitute”. Securing 70% of votes, he became the new leader of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Suga clarified that he would pursue Abe’s unfinished policies while in office. This messaging is especially important for Japan’s allies in the Quad, namely United States (US), India and Australia. The allies were apprehensive of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative phasing out with Abe’s departure.
Next month, foreign ministers of the Quad allies will huddle together in Tokyo. Confronting perceived Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region as well as Chinese development of vaccines to cure COVID-19 will be their agenda.
Suga began his political career in 1975 as secretary to former Trade Minister and later Minister of International Trade and Industry, Hikosaburo Okonogi. In 1987, he became a part of the Yokohama City Council. Ultimately, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996. In 2001, Suga was appointed Deputy Secretary General of the LDP. From there, he became Parliamentary Secretary for Land, Infrastructure and Transport and later the Parliamentary Secretary for International Trade and Industry. It was in 2004, however, that the LDP expressed its confidence in Suga’s capabilities by appointing him Chairman of the party’s Diet Affairs Committee. The committee looks after the party’s interaction with the Japanese parliament.
In 2005, he was appointed as Senior Vice Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications. When Abe was elected Prime Minister in 2006, Suga was elevated to full Minister. He held two additional Ministerial portfolios for Privatisation of the Postal Services and also for Decentralisation Reform. It was evident to all that Abe had found his trusted right-hand. The following year, Abe instituted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US, Australia and India as part of his future Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept.
His devotion to Abe’s policies may appear as reflections of “individual devotion”. However, it should be seen as an indication of fierce loyalty to party policies.
Suga was appointed to revitalise LDP in elections against the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) during 2011. In September 2012, he became LDP’s Executive Acting Secretary General. Three months later, Abe was formally re-elected Prime Minister for a second term, whence began the age of “Abenomics“. Meanwhile, Suga was appointed CCS and Minister in charge of Strengthening National Security in Abe’s second cabinet.
Michael Cucek, an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History at Waseda University and Temple University, Japan explains the role and powers of CCS thus:
“The CCS is not one job; it is five, at least. The CCS holds two scheduled press conferences a day, providing the, sometimes off the cuff, official word of the Japanese government. The CCS is also the Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister’s Residence and the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. He serves as the gatekeeper of the Prime Minister’s office and the coordinator of all policy initiatives. From time to time, the CCS can also be a political bodyguard, guiding the Prime Minister around political danger.”
The longest-serving CCS in Japanese history, Suga was unusually involved in meetings and comments pertaining to Defence and Foreign Policy. Some of his noteworthy activities on this front include:-
- April 2014: Condemnation of China’s seizure of Japanese cargo ship “Baosteel Emotion” in light of a historical pre-war debt dating back to 1936.
- May 2014: Indication of ease in Japanese sanctions on North Korea in exchange for opening of probe into abductions of Japanese citizens by agents of the North Korean government (1977-1983).
- June 2014: Denial of Chinese media reports that Japanese F-15 planes followed a Chinese Tu-154 aircraft (around 30m).
- September 2014
- Meeting with General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief, to discuss peace issues and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
- Expression of discontent at Chinese President Xi Jinping for glorifying Chinese victory over Japan in Second World War.
- December 2015: Condemnation of China’s arrest of Japanese nationals accused of espionage.
- January 2016: Meeting with India’s visiting Minister of State for Power, Coal and New and Renewable Energy, Piyush Goyal. Met to discuss collaboration in the area of efficient coal fired thermal power generation technologies.
- January 2017: Acknowledgement that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal faced an uphill battle without the US. Commitment that the Japanese government would properly assert itself in trade talks to prevent a move towards protectionism.
- September 2017: Disclosure that the Japanese government was considering full-scale deliberations on countermeasures against electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks.
- April 2019: Calling for a direct dialogue with Taiwan in the wake of purported Chinese intrusions.
- October 2019
- Announcement that Japan would send its own naval contingent in the Persian Gulf to ensure safe shipment of oil instead of joining a US coalition against Iran.
- Acknowledgement that one of the missiles fired by North Korea landed within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
- November 2019: Meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss preparations for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan and future harmonisation of relations.
For Suga, there was a second additional portfolio assigned by Abe in 2012; the Minister in charge of Alleviating the Burden of the Bases in Okinawa. The most pressing demand by Okinawans was the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station, Futenma. Earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihido Noda had negotiated a troop redeployment agreement with the US under which 9,000 US soldiers in Okinawa would be stationed out of the island. Suga took his time but was apparently able to tactfully manage the issue with little to no political costs for Abe. Finally in 2018, the US military began returning land to locals and agreed to relocate the Futenma base from Ginowan to Henoko, also in Okinawa. The red-carpet treatment accorded to Suga, during his US visit in 2019, discreetly signalled Abe’s intent to give him Washington’s blessings as his replacement.
Though he may not be able to compensate for Abe’s charisma and visionary leadership, yet Suga deserves credit for being a man capable of delivering.
Suga has established himself as a self-made, high-ranking politician. His devotion to Abe’s policies may appear as reflections of “individual devotion”. However, it should be seen as an indication of fierce loyalty to party policies. The strengthening of Indo-Pacific has become core to Japan’s national security interests and will remain intertwined with its domestic economic interests till the foreseeable future.
While he did not enjoy the family upbringing in politics and somewhat easy entry to the Diet as Abe did, Suga gained more through practical experience. Though he may not be able to compensate for Abe’s charisma and visionary leadership, yet Suga deserves credit for being a man capable of delivering. His appointment of a rather timid Katsonobu Kato as CCS, previously his Deputy, indicates his desire to retain the upper hand. But will he be able to set himself free of Abe’s ghosts?
Strategic agreements with international allies are likely to diminish chances of radical policy reviews that could prove detrimental to Japanese national security interests. The bureaucracy that remained subject to Suga’s tight control could create complications for him before he is properly elected through outright majority in 2021. Also, many in the LDP would certainly have “had enough” of his influence. Another pressing question remains: Will Suga chart his own path or let history remember him just as ‘Abe’s Man’?
For international observers, therefore, expecting a status quo in the Japanese government post Abe’s departure would be imprudent.