‘Proactive’ Japan Looking for Leadership
Gone are the days when Japan was viewed as a “reactive state” that avoids international political commitments and seeks policy change only when faced with external pressure. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Japan’s political actions became more assertive, albeit gradually. Japan effectively engaged in organizations like APEC and ADB, even as the country grappled with its economic woes. The post-Gulf War era saw Japan moving away from “checkbook diplomacy” towards active participation in maintaining peace and security. However, inconsistent leadership from Tokyo obstructed the country’s global and regional potential.
With the recent announcement of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declining to run for the leadership race of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), his name has been added to the list of one-year prime ministers in the country’s history. Many have cited fear of Japan heading towards revolving door politics 2.0, last seen from 2006 to 2012. During this time, on the one hand, Japan took steps towards TPP, strengthened partnership with various regional actors, and reviewed arms export policy; on the other hand, it faced increasing tensions with China and South Korea over territorial disputes and historical narratives.
Amidst this backdrop, Shinzo Abe filled the long-held vacuum for a chief executive figure in Japanese politics. With his legacy of releasing the first National Security Strategy in 2013, National Defense Program Guidelines in the same year, Cabinet decision on collective self-defense in 2014, and the Indo Pacific Strategy in 2016, Japan strengthened its proactive political posture.
Being the Chief Cabinet Secretary for eight years and a close ally of Abe, Suga’s 2020 win was viewed hopefully. Irrespective of his uncharismatic persona, with a reputation of being a pragmatic administrator and a deal maker, many assumed he could help in reversing the country’s sluggish economy and push forward LDP’s agenda on constitutional reforms. However, his short term was plagued with controversies and public criticism. Rejection of academic scholars’ membership in the scientific advisory panel, campaigning for domestic tourism amidst COVID-19, failure to maintain COVID protocols during New Year celebrations, public opposition to the Olympics, and delays in vaccine rollout while cases increased, resulted in record-low ratings. The party’s support for Suga began eroding as the administration’s COVID mishandling started reflecting in the local mayoral elections. All these consistent developments amounted to Suga laying to rest his plans for a possible 2021 electoral run.
This year’s elections will see Japan pursuing inspiring leadership that could not only unify domestic political factions but also spearhead the country towards economic dynamism with regional security assurances. Since the rise of populism, anti-internationalism, and trade protectionism, Japan has taken up an active role in strengthening the liberal international order. Paving way for the U.S. to adopt a “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, taking the reins of leadership of the CPTPP when the U.S. decided to withdraw its membership, and signing the ambitious economic partnership with the EU was Japan’s proactive moment at its best.
As the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies and power politics reemerge, the momentum in Japanese leadership at the international stage not only benefits Tokyo’s interests but also helps in maintaining stability. Even as the Trump presidency came to an end in 2020, the arguments in favor of America’s weakened credibility remain compelling. By viewing the 2021 Japanese general elections through this global optics, the next prime minister of Japan holds significance not only for the country but also for the region.
Suga’s term was infused with leadership flaws that were not only rejected by the public but also the party. Throughout the pandemic, his administration failed to relay clear communication on their pandemic-based policies. The prime minister rarely made speeches to comfort the public solidifying his image as a detached leader, resulting in battered approval ratings.
By distancing Suga, the LDP has swiftly taken steps to strengthen its image as public grievances grow louder vis-à-vis COVID-19. Suga’s decision to not stand for 2021 elections can be viewed as LDP avoiding in-party struggle and preparing for smooth succession to the next administration. This also highlights the party’s commitment towards crisis management, with a focus on leadership changes at the very top. It has been able to send a message to the public that it is mindful of their views on the government, and is hence successful in sustaining their interest in the Party’s endeavors. Many leaders from LDP like Fumio Kishida, Taro Kono, and Sanae Takaichi have shown interest in succeeding the current prime minister. The party’s main agenda would be to resist the comeback of revolving door politics and establishing firm leadership in the next administration that steers Japan towards a greater proactive grand strategy.
Irrespective of whether the country will find the next prominent post-war prime minister like Sato, Koizumi, or Abe in the upcoming elections, Japan’s role in this era remains fundamental for international and regional politics.