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Will Northeast Asia Arms Race Surges in 2019?

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While South Korea’s arms budget focuses on the North Korean threat, massive Japanese spending looks aimed at both China and North Korea

 

As China massively upgrades its power projection abilities with naval and naval air assets, and North Korea retains its nuclear and missile capabilities despite the diplomatic breakthroughs of 2018, Northeast Asia’s democracies Japan and South Korea are also muscling up.

It is unclear how far 2019’s defense budgets are driven by their urge to deter potential enemies, and how far by the unpredictable status of alliances under the Donald Trump administration.

A further complication is the administration’s aggressive moves to cut trade deficits with Asian economies: Defense equipment is expensive, and the US remains the “arsenal of democracy.”

Regardless, in 2019 Japan will be sinking a whopping US$47 billion into its defense in 2019, reportedly the largest annual defense budget ever deployed. That is up 1.3% from the previous year, and a rise for the seventh straight year. More significantly, 2019 marks the first year in a five-year defense budget plan of $250 billion.

South Korea is close behind this year. In 2019 it will be investing $42 billion – an increase of 8.2%, year–on-year – reportedly the largest expansion since 2008 when the country had just transitioned to a conservative presidency which overturned the previous “Sunshine Policy” of North Korean engagement.

The size of these budgets is particularly notable given that last year saw a charm offensive from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, related international summits and a significant reduction of tension around the Korean peninsula.

“I think what we’re seeing at the moment is a case of both countries hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” said Craig Caffery, a principal analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit. “Diplomatic developments can occur overnight, but military capability takes years to develop, so it makes sense to take a longer-term view of military requirements.”

Caffery is unconvinced that the increased military spending is aimed at ameliorating possible Trump trade broadsides toward Japan and South Korea.

“Higher levels of defense spending will certainly be welcome news to President Trump, but I don’t think they have much to do with him,” Caffery said. “Both countries are responding to emerging security concerns and their response to those factors pre-dates recent US calls for higher spending.

“Defense contracts certainly have diplomatic value, but the primary concern will always be the capability requirements of the armed forces.”

Japan’s shopping list

Tokyo has a long shopping list. It is acquiring two land-based Aegis missile-defense systems, beefing up its seaborne Aegis, for deployment in 2023.

“The decision to acquire two land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems is the clearest indication of intent” to defend against North Korean missile threats, said Caffery of Jane’s.

In 2019, six F35 stealth fighters will be acquired, but a far bigger fleet of 142 F35s – both the conventional F35A and the F35B short-take-off-and-landing variant – is to be purchased by 2023. To cut costs, earlier plans for localized production have reportedly been overturned: The fighters, at $88 million apiece, look set to be acquired lock, stock and barrel from the United States.

Two of Tokyo’s so-called “helicopter destroyers” of the Izumo class will be upgraded to operate F35Bs, converting them from de facto to de jure aircraft carriers, albeit smaller than Chinese or US vessels of the class. Japan deployed a powerful carrier force in the Pacific during World War II, but has not operated carriers since 1945.

Two more destroyers will be added to the fleet, as will a submarine with top-end detection technologies.

The addition of carriers to Tokyo’s arsenal is significant, given that a marine brigade was also activated in 2019. “I think what you are looking at is something akin to US amphibious assault ships like the USS Wasp,” said Alex Neill of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, or IISS, who has been aboard the Izumo-class Kaga. “It will be a mixed capability, with the heli platform as well as the F35Bs.”

Once converted to flat tops with F35Bs aboard, together with the marines and Japan’s already expansive surface fleet – which operates more destroyers and frigates than the Royal and French navies combined – add a significant new expeditionary capability.

Missions could include covering the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands and venturing into the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean – possibly in the company of Australian, Indian and US assets as they seek to counter China’s naval build-up.

Neill speculated that the stealth nature of the F35Bs could compromise the sophisticated defense systems China has deployed on bases in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which go operational this year.

He also emphasized the versatility of the upgraded ships. “There are hospitals on board and command-and-control aspects to these platforms,” he told Asia Times. “If you cater for the fact that they will be networked into US and other allied assets in the region, the force multiplication aspect is important.”

Yet more US defense equipment comes in the shape of nine E-2D early warning aircraft and three Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. Cyber defense capability is being reinforced, with some $20 million to allocate more resources and staff.

Meanwhile, the relocation of a US Marine base on Okinawa is proceeding, despite local opposition on environmental grounds. All this suggest a new and broader strategic outlook in Tokyo.

“In Japan, the short-term focus was very much on the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, which fits well with the country’s traditional defensive stance on security issues,” said Caffery of Jane’s. “But the new mid-term defense program which was approved in December is pushing Japan towards a more pro-active, rather than reactionary, stance.”

Home-grown technologies

If Japan appears to be assuming both North Korean and Chinese threats, South Korea seems most focused on its northern neighbor.

The biggest chunk of Seoul’s budget – some $28 billion – is for the maintenance of personnel and existing equipment, the aim being to make the military smarter and more efficient. Some $14 billion will be spent on new hardware, including aircraft and destroyers.

Among the new hardware, the standout outlay is $5.1 billion for Seoul’s “three-axis” defense system – a 16.4% on-year increase. It encompasses “Massive Punishment and Retaliation” – a multi-pronged wartime plan to take out the North Korean leadership; the “Kill Chain” pre-emptive strike system, designed to hit North Korean missile bases; and the Korean Air and Missile Defense System, a defensive network.

This includes purchases of “Green Pine” early warning systems announced in November.

Neill of ISS considers the missile defense capabilities the standout items. “I think that, both in the case of Japan and Korea, uncertainty over North Korea and the sincerity of its willingness to denuclearize, means there are a whole range of different short- and mid-range missile platforms that have to be talked about,” he said.

Some $4.1 billion will reinforce command and control and battlefield maneuverability. These assets are deemed essential to maintain the army’s efficacy, as South Korea, faced with a declining population, slashes its service personnel to 500,000 from 618,000 by 2022.

Can Korea take command?

A total of $3 billion is allotted to defense R&D, including AI, robotics and drones. A relatively modest $1.39 billion goes toward communications, reconnaissance and counter-artillery assets – all required if the South Korean military is to take over wartime operational control (OPCON) of its military, which is now part of a joint command led by the United States.

Last year, US Commander in Chief Korea Vincent Brooks stated bluntly that South Korea was not ready for OPCON transfer. Neill of IISS is also unconvinced.

“It seems to be a question of perpetual procrastination, it has been discussed for over a decade now,” Neill said. “Systemically, the South Korean system is acclimatized to US operational control, their whole command structure emulates that of the US and was designed to have the US inherently intertwined with that.

“Until South Korea comes up with a plausible command structure which can be matrix managed, I think the US fears a sort of Confucian rigidity and deference to seniority that does not allow for flexibility on the battlefield and quick decision making; is it confident in rapid re

action capability in escalation dominance and escalation management?”

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Sharif needs to break his silence

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On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued non-bailable warrants for Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Azizia Steel Mill corruption case after the former prime minister failed to surrender to authorities.

The court also observed that the medical certificates provided by Sharif to support his claim that he is too ill to return to Pakistan from England were those of a consultant and not a hospital.

The IHC directed the foreign secretary to contact the British authorities through the Pakistani High Commission to ensure Sharif’s return.

The issuance of the arrest warrants started a debate inside the country, where many of Sharif’s colleagues and supporters are of the view that he is again being denied justice and that the court made this decision in a haste. On the other hand, many supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) think Sharif has always been given relief by the courts and that the IHC’s decision to declare him an absconder is based on merit.

Imran Khan aide interviewed

This correspondent talked to Ali Nawaz Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on capital development authority affairs, about the Sharif case and also about the ongoing harassment of journalists.

Awan, a self-made politician and a close aide of Prime Minister Imran Khan, did not shy away from answering my questions about what his government thinks of the IHC verdict and how it will be able to bring Sharif back.

He replied that at first, Sharif had claimed to be suffering from a disease causing the platelet count in his blood to fall uncontrollably, but then he said he had a chronic heart ailment for which he needed treatment outside the country.

“Critical patients do not waste time, but it has been 11 months that Nawaz Sharif has been outside and he has not gone through any medical treatment,” Awan said. “He is always on about the high moral ground, and he claims he is standing with his people. Sharif also claims that he is being victimized by the courts and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and all the cases against him are fake.

“If he really means what he says, he should come back to Pakistan and surrender, as the only forum to prove his innocence are the courts in Pakistan.”

He said Sharif cannot have it both ways, applauding the courts if they give him relief while his party calls the same courts biased if a decision comes down against him.

“Since Sharif has become an absconder after the court verdict, he must return to the country as soon as possible, as he avoiding facing the courts, and living in self-exile is creating a bad impression of the country.”

When asked how the PTI government will be able to bring Sharif back to the country, Awan replied that it would use every single legal avenue available, and its efforts would be visible to everyone.

He noted that the Pakistani and British governments have extradition treaties with each other, and since Sharif is not a British citizen he will be sent back.

“We will share the court verdict with the British government and will demand that the authorities there hand over Sharif to us,” Awan said. “The IHC has already said that Sharif is not getting any treatment for a low platelet-cell count or a heart problem.”

This correspondent also asked Awan about PTI’s performance in the foreign-policy domain, and his answer was: “We have devised a very fair foreign policy. Look at what happened in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Russia stood with us and overruled an Indian objection to showing our new map, in which Kashmir is shown as [an integral part of Pakistan].

“Likewise in the PML-N government, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were not happy with the vague policies of Sharif. Now not only Riyadh and the UAE but also Qatar are standing with us.

“Was not Washington asking us to do more all the time? But since our government came into power, US President Donald Trump is saying thanks to us, and he openly admits that Pakistan played a crucial role in the negotiations between the US and the Afghan Taliban.

“The Kashmir issue has been highlighted in the UN Security Council. Before us, the previous prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was part of the Dawn leaks, and you know that has been used against us in international courts and global forums.”

I asked why under the PTI regime journalists are harassed, police reports are lodged against them, they are abducted and the cybercrime law is used against them, and whether he thinks his government should not have not done these things. Awan was of the view that if any journalist thinks he is being framed, or facing a wrong police accusation, he can always go to the court. “We are not using any law against any journalist.

“In fact, if you recall once the senior journalist Najam Sethi was arrested, you will remember how the Jang newspaper was attacked through Saifur Rehman. Tell me any such incident that has happened under our regime.

“In fact, when we were in opposition we boycotted many TV channels, but from the day we came into power we have replied to every single media house. We accept criticism, and even knowing that particular propaganda and fake news are circulated against us, we have never charged any journalist in fake cases.”

What is the way forward?

Perhaps it is time for Sharif to make a decision, and he at least needs to open up by talking to the media and for his political party’s supporters to make clear what his current approach is, and why anyone should believe that after the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) surrendered to the pressure of invisible forces and ditched its own narrative of “respect the ballot” on numerous occasions it will not abandon the masses again.

Whether Sharif decides to talk or not is his own propagative, but one thing is certain: Unless he gives his version in his own words, it will not clear the air, and many in Pakistan who are not supporters of his party will continue to think he is silent because he has made a deal, or he actually is avoiding arrest and prefers to stay in London until the circumstances for his party become better in Pakistan.

However, in his absence, the PML-N team is only making surrender after surrender, and it actually is helping the PTI government pass bills in the National Assembly. In fact, most PML-N stalwarts are either distracted from the ground realities or under the leadership of Shahbaz Sharif are trying to reconcile with the invisible forces.

The country’s largest opposition party has not staged any protests on behalf of the masses, nor it is being vocal on human-rights violations. A political party that claims it is battling for democratic supremacy cannot afford a strategy that is vague and seems not very effective, as instead the PML-N is only waiting for PTI to get out of the good books of the powers that be so it can replace it in government.

Sharif for sure may have different plans, and given his political history it is likely that he will wait for the right time to strike back against his visible and invisible political opponents, but the question remains how much more turmoil the country will face in the meantime, and who will actually fight for the rights of the masses who are mere spectators in the game and bearing the brunt of the battle between Sharif and the invisible forces.

It is time for Sharif to decide whether he wants to lead the battle from the front or will drag the battle on longer, and instead of pursuing his case in the courts will wait for the right time.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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India swings like a pendulum between China and US

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India is caught in a geo-strategic chess game between China and the US. China has been mounting pressure on India since early May by deploying large numbers of troops along the border in Ladakh. Meanwhile the US is also exerting pressure on India for its own strategic aims.

All in all, India is losing its strategic autonomy; thus it behaves like a pendulum by simultaneously agreeing with the US and China.

A few significant events support this notion. First is the text of the Sino-Indian joint statement issued after the meeting on September 10 between Indian External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The first item of the joint statement says, “Both sides should take guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes.” This reflects that India has agreed to the Chinese demand to abide by the agreements and consensus reached previously between the countries’ leaders.

The next thing to consider is the separate statements issued by India and the US regarding a virtual 2+2 virtual meeting between the joint secretaries of the External Affairs Ministry and Defense Ministry of India and their respective US counterparts, the State Department and Defense Department, the day after the Jaishankar-Wang meeting.

According to Indian media reports, the third India-US 2+2 ministerial meeting between Jaishankar and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and their American counterparts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper was scheduled for this month. During this round of meetings, the two sides planned to sign the last of the US-India defense foundational agreements, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

India and the US have already inked three other foundational agreements, namely the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, and the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) to the India-US General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2019.

The BECA is supposed to enable India to avail US expertise on geospatial intelligence and sharpen the accuracy of weapons and automated hardware systems used for military purposes.

It seems that India has postponed the 2+2 ministerial meeting and signing of the BECA agreement for the time being. The Indian statement reads, “The inter-sessional meeting mechanism was set up pursuant to the 2+2 Ministerial. The two sides agreed to continue these discussions in the future.”

However, the US statement says, “They looked forward to preparing for the US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue later this year.”

The US has been pushing India hard to transform the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue into an Asian NATO, although Jaishankar has repeatedly denied that India is seeking a NATO-like military alliance with the US. The US intention was explained in by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in a webinar organized by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum on August 31.

Again, under US pressure, India decided to host the Quad and 2+2 India-US ministerial meetings next month. The Hindustan Times reports, “[The] United States, India, Australia, and Japan are in conversation to decide the venue and date of [a] Quad security dialogue next month, followed by the 2+2 dialogue between India and the US here.

“As of now, Japan is an option for the Quad dialogue, or both [the] Quad and 2+2 dialogues could be held back to back in New Delhi late next month.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s myopic China strategy is culpable for his country’s loss of strategic autonomy.

An Indian strategic analyst who wants to remain unnamed considers that Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leading strategist, and Modi’s henchman Amit Shah suggested that the prime minister take revenge for the defeat in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and take back Aksai Chin, now in China-administered Ladakh.

They assumed that China would collapse economically because of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. That would have been an opportunity for India to rebalance its stance with China.

Modi’s strategic aide Jaishankar claims that India is now in the sixth phase of strategic evolution since its decolonization from British rule in 1947. He claims that India should take risks and join with the US alliance. Since Modi became the prime minister in 2014, India has entered this stage, in his assertion.

Since Modi took charge, India and the US have signed three foundational strategic agreements, and the final deal is pending, as noted above.

The US needs a strong and reliable partner in Asia because China has emerged as a challenger to its previously unquestioned global dominance. The US has been eagerly trying to forge a military and strategic partnership with India to contain China.

Should the US fail to forge a partnership with India and add it to its alliance as soon as possible, US dominance in Asia will end.

There is a vigorous debate in the United States among the government, academia, think-tanks and media over whether the US should withdraw its troops from allied countries, including Germany and South Korea. Some suggest that troops should be diverted to contain China. For many American strategic analysts, China is the primary foe, not Russia. Therefore the US is also constantly mounting pressure on China’s Asian neighbor, India.

However, India claims to have maintained its strategic autonomy as a middle power. It has developed international relations through BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Quad, and the partnership with the US.

So it is understandable that India, a middle power aspiring for to become a superpower in the future, claims that it has been exercising its own strategic autonomy.

The United States, the underwriter of the post-World War II so-called liberal world order, considers that only it has the right to dominate the world. Unlike the erstwhile USSR, China came on to the world stage with tremendous economic clout backed by military might and technological advancement. It has proved problematic for the US to meet China’s challenge in the quarter-century after the end of the Cold War.

Former US president Barack Obama initiated the grand strategy of a “pivot to Asia” to contain China. His successor Donald Trump’s previous secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, launched the Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2017 aiming to manage China and maintain US hegemony in the world.

For this, it is known that the United States needs a firm friend in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the candidates are Australia, Japan, South Korea, but India could be the most suitable friend of the US to contain China.

Japan and South Korea are very much focused on trade. They have little interest in geopolitics and grand strategies, and even if they were, they have limited strategic capabilities. Their geographical location is less favorable than India because they have no land borders with China.

Besides, American strategists are mindful that India has a maritime dimension as an extra advantage to limit China. Australia’s importance is also limited to the Eastern Pacific. In such a scenario, only India can play a vital role in the US grand strategy.

China’s grand strategy is to put India behind it in the long run in the Asia-centric world order. As a short-term tactic, China is pushing for India’s neutrality in the strategic balance with the United States.

One of Modi’s skills is the master to tell people what they want to hear. He went to Washington and vowed to Trump that he would play a crucial role as a US ally. Modi also contented Xi Jinping by promising a consensus on making an Asian Century and opening the multipolar world.

There is a proverb in the Nepali language, “Ekai mandapma behulako ko pani bau behuliko pani bau.” The literal translation of the saying is “trying to be the father of both the bridegroom and the bride in the same marriage ceremony.” The adage represents a person who tries to master two polar opposite and mutually exclusive events simultaneously.

Modi has been trying to do this since 2016 in the case of China and the US. He believes that Beijing and Washington can be swayed like Indian voters have been influenced by his hollow promises. However, such things are of sporadic utility in diplomacy because counterparts always want accountability for agreement and consensus.

It seems Modi overlooked many facts before going for an alliance with the US.

First, India and its northern neighbor, China, shares a 3,488-kilometer land border and keeps a stern eye on India’s every strategic move. During the Cold War, India had no direct border with the USSR or the US.

Second, in 1962, India and China were comparable. The size of their economies and military and strategic strength were more or less the same. Today, however, China’s economy is much larger than India’s, and its defense budget is three times as large.

Third, Modi overlooks the fact that China has been winning on every front without fighting. In contrast, the US has been fighting everywhere without winning a single front for the last two decades.

Fourth, India is trying for an alliance with the US while Washington has been betraying its partners by stepping back from the majority of its international commitments.

America’s partners are anxious, yet India is striving hard for an alliance with the US despite its muscular use of tariffs. Washington revoked India’s preferential access to the US market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in June 2019.

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Japan: Yoshihide Suga Is Japan’s New Prime Minister

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As Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, takes the reins of the world’s third-largest economy this week, he inherits a domestic agenda swamped by the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s biggest economic slump on record and the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

The leader of one of America’s closest allies also steps into a tense geopolitical climate amid rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relations. Yet experts say this new premier is largely untested in the foreign policy arena.

“Suga is more domestically-oriented and several questions have been raised about his propensity to deal with foreign relations and international issues,” says Donna Weeks, professor of political science at Musashino University in Tokyo.

Suga takes over from the country’s longest-serving prime minister, 65-year-old Shinzo Abe, who resigned due to health reasons.

Abe, who became an internationally recognizable statesman during his second tenure as prime minister, made wooing President Donald Trump a top priority. He was the first foreign leader to meet Trump after the 2016 election, and invited Trump to be the first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new emperor in 2019.

During Trump’s 2019 visit to Japan, Abe’s pandering made headlines. They played a round of golf (stopping to take a smiling selfie in between holes), ate a hamburger lunch, sat at ringside seats at a sumo competition and then tucked into a Japanese barbecue dinner.

When Abe announced in late August that he was stepping down, Trump was quick to comment on Twitter. He called Abe “the greatest Prime Minister in the history of Japan,” adding that Japan’s “relationship with the USA is the best it has ever been.”

That begs the question: what will a new prime minister mean for U.S.-Japan relations?

A shift from personal politics

Trump’s foreign policy has often been defined by his personal relationships with world leaders, and Abe appears to have fostered among the closest ties to the volatile American President.

Suga, Abe’s longtime chief cabinet secretary, is largely expected to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps when it comes to foreign policy. But he may not be able to replicate the Trump-Abe bromance, not least because he admits he lacks the diplomatic skills.

“Prime Minister Abe’s leadership diplomacy was truly amazing. I don’t think I can match that,” Suga said on Sept. 12, adding that he will continue to consult with Abe on foreign relations.

Still, Suga’s role as Abe’s right-hand man for the last eight years means he has a strong understanding of how to manage the relationship with the U.S., says Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Asia Global Institute.

Yoshihide Suga, president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), middle, receives a round of applause after being elected as Japan's prime minister during an extraordinary session at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on Sept. 16, 2020.

Yoshihide Suga, president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), middle, receives a round of applause after being elected as Japan’s prime minister during an extraordinary session at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on Sept. 16, 2020.

Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The White House said in a statement that Trump “looks forward to working with Prime Minister Suga to make [relations] even stronger.”

“Suga is less outgoing than Abe, but he knows what he has to do—at least until November,” Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia and the Japan Chair at the Washington D.C-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tells TIME. “One of [Suga’s] most important jobs for the near term will be managing the constant insults and unpredictability of President Trump.”

The benefits of Abe’s U.S. charm offensive are also up for debate. Trump still imposed aluminum and steel tariffs on Japan, strong-armed Abe into a one-sided trade deal and proposed to quadruple the $2 billion Japan pays for hosting U.S. troops in the country. And Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big regional trade deal that Japan had promoted as a way of containing China’s growing influence.

Still, Suga is not a completely unknown quantity in Washington, and has already built relationships with some top U.S. officials. He met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Tokyo in 2018, and visited Washington D.C. last May, meeting Vice President Mike Pence (at the time, Suga’s visit sparked speculation that he was being groomed for a bigger role).

Experts say Suga will be closely watching the U.S. election to determine what a Biden presidency might mean for Japan.

“Japan is greatly interested in the U.S. election because Mr. Biden’s direction toward China affects Japan greatly,” says Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “Japan wants the U.S. to deter China’s military aggression in Asia.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks to Japan's then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Oct. 6, 2018.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) speaks to Japan’s then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on Oct. 6, 2018.

Eugene Hoshiko—AFP/Getty Images

Read More: Yoshihide Suga Will Succeed Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister. What’s Next for Japan?

Domestic problems may take precedence over foreign policy

At the outset, the new prime minister may be occupied by trouble at home. The 71-year-old inherits an economy battered by COVID-19, which he will have to attempt to resuscitate despite a shrinking and aging population. He will also have to determine the fate of the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

He said on Sept. 11 that his top priorities will be fighting the virus and turning around the economy.

“I think Suga will focus on COVID-19 first and foremost,” says Weeks, of Musashino University.

Abe faced public scrutiny for his handling of the virus. Although Japan’s response has been more effective than many other nations, many in Japan perceived the national government’s response as too slow. As of Sept. 17, about 1,480 people have died and 77,000 have been infected in Japan.

Read More: Donald Trump Didn’t Notice When Shinzo Abe Took a Tumble on the Golf Course

A balancing act

Even while juggling a busy domestic agenda, Suga will still have to do a balancing act between the U.S. and China, one made no easier by particularly fraught relations between the superpowers.

Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, tells TIME that Suga will prioritize U.S. relations, but he will also seek to maintain the thaw in relations with China. Economic ties between Japan and China had improved under Abe, but historic tensions remain and Chinese incursions into Japanese waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) have caused agitation.

China expects to deepen cooperation on fighting COVID-19 and to grow economic ties, according to foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

An editorial in late August in the Global Times, a state-run mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, called for closer partnership with Japan amid tense relations with the U.S. “China must win the support of countries like Japan” as it is “faced with strategic containment from the U.S,” it said.

Suga has also said that he wants to resolve some unfinished business on the diplomatic front. Abe had failed in his goal to resolve several wartime legacies, including normalizing ties with North Korea and signing a peace treaty with Russia to formally end their hostilities in World War II.

In early September, Suga told a news conference that he would consider meeting North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un without preconditions. He said that he wants to “make a breakthrough” on the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, a goal that Abe said he regretted not achieving.

As far as North Korea diplomacy on nuclear issues goes, it will be important for Japan to continue working closely with the U.S., says Nakabayashi of Waseda University.

Even as some in Japan worry about the rare uncertainty this new administration brings, experts say the U.S.-Japan alliance is likely to remain stable under Suga.

“If he follows Abe, and that seems likely, he will seek a better economic relationship with China despite differences on security, territory and history and do whatever it takes to keep Uncle Sam engaged to provide security,” says Kingston of Temple University. About 54,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Japan, and the country hosts the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet. Japan’s post-World War II “pacifist” constitution renounced war, and Abe left office without fulfilling long cherished plans to alter the charter.

Plus, says Kristi Govella, an assistant professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at M?noa, the foundations of the U.S.-Japan alliance run much deeper than ties between individual leaders.

“The U.S. and Japan share significant interests and values that give them strong incentives to maintain good relations with each other, and this is unlikely to change under a Suga administration,” she says. “Japan is a key U.S. partner in dealing with China and North Korea and maintaining stability in the region more broadly.”

Write to Amy Gunia at [email protected].

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