Japan-Vietnam ties likely to strengthen under new Japanese PM

By Viet Anh   September 24, 2020 | 05:30 am PT
Experts say new PM Yoshihide Suga will continue Japanese support for open seas and economies, bringing Japan and Vietnam closer.

"There will be continuity in the government's commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance and a free and open Indo-Pacific (region)," said Christina Davis, professor of government and director of the program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard University.

She was commenting on what Suga would do as prime minister that could shape the nation’s relationship with Vietnam.

Yoshihide Suga, 71, became Japan's new Prime Minister on September 16 after winning a parliamentary vote. Suga took over after his predecessor Shinzo Abe formally resigned along with his cabinet over his health issues.

Suga was considered Abe’s right hand, serving his administration as Chief Cabinet Secretary for eight years.

"Japan has showed increasing leadership in the region to support open seas and economy against challenges on multiple fronts. This will bring Japan and Vietnam together in closer partnership," Davis said.

She said she believes PM Suga will continue to support the right of free navigation in the South China Sea, and for international seas to remain open for Japan and Vietnam to have communication between their militaries.

"Also, a diplomatic strategy for supporting international law is very important," she said.

Vessels from the U.S. Navy, Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Philippine Navy sail in formation in South China Sea, May 9, 2019. Photo handed out via Reuters.

Vessels from the U.S. Navy, Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Philippine Navy sail in formation in South China Sea, May 9, 2019. Photo handed out via Reuters.

Many other experts have also said Japan will continue giving priority to its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Yoshikazu Kato, currently Adjunct Associate Professor at the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, said the new administration of Japan will definitely be committed to its Indo-Pacific strategy.

"Japan is aware that it has initiated this strategy and it would be beneficial for all stakeholders including Vietnam who has been positively engaged in the regional rules and values-based cooperation while confronting serious geo-political challenges with China," he said.

Kato also said that irrespective of the victor in the upcoming presidential election in the U.S., Japan and the U.S. will aggressively promote the Indo-Pacific region to hedge against uncertainties of China’s rise.

In his first phone talk with U.S. President Donald Trump as Japanese PM, the two leaders agreed to continue their nations’ close coordination on various issues.

"I told him that the Japan-U.S. alliance is the foundation of regional peace and stability, and we agreed to continue to coordinate closely," Suga told reporters on September 20 after the call.

Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S., said under Suga, the Indo-Pacific vision "will likely continue to be a Japanese foreign policy priority."

"There is a broad consensus on this within government, but also among the Japanese people. Overall I anticipate little change from what Japan is pursuing at the moment," she said.

Long-term strategy

Stephen Nagy, Senior Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies, International Christian University, Tokyo, said a free and open Indo-Pacific vision is part of Japan’s long term strategy to inculcate itself in the region through economic and infrastructural connectivity as well as diplomatic integration.

"This goal has not changed with Suga and it won’t change in overall strategic objectives. Where we might see change is in the peripheral details such as partners, and specific regional initiatives as resources will be scarce in a post Covid-19 recession."

Regarding Japan’s next moves to deal with Covid-19 in association with Vietnam, Davis of Harvard University said that alongside many security worries about China, the pandemic has made many countries worry about their over-dependence on Chinese production.

In such a context, Japan was very eager to diversify its supply chains, she said.

"We do hear quite a bit about Japan wanting to have diversification, and that's where Vietnam and Southeast Asia has long been its important partners. We also see the Japanese have been trying to look at new investments in Vietnam, continuing the strong relationship with Thailand, building partnerships in India, and that's an area for cooperation," she said.

Japans new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga smiles during an interview in Tokyo, Japan August 26, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Issei Katoaption]

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, then Japan’s top government spokesman, smiles during an interview in Tokyo, Japan, August 26, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Issei Kato.

On September 7, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc said Vietnam’s market was big enough for ambitious business investment plans, as well as the business restructuring and supply chain transformation strategies of Japanese investors.

His statement came around two months after the Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) announced 15 Japanese firms had registered to shift their production from China to Vietnam.

Davis felt travel was another area for increased cooperation between Japan and Vietnam.

She said it was interesting that countries like Vietnam and Japan, which have had stronger policies to contain the pandemic, were "opening up to travel for some regional partners, and so we can hope that maybe Vietnam and Japan can restore connection for travelers who feel comfortable...."

Most recently, a Hanoi-Tokyo flight, Vietnam's first international commercial flight after six months of suspension over the Covid-19 pandemic, had carried over 100 passengers to Japan on September 19.

Suga’s not Abe

Mieko Nakabayashi, professor at the School of Social Sciences of Waseda University, Japan, feels there will be a difference in how Japan confronts China with Suga as PM.

Suga will continue Abe's foreign policy approach on a free and open Indo-Pacific, but his view on China may not be the same as Abe, Nakabayashi said.

"Rather, there is a possibility that it is closer to the viewpoints of Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary General of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)."

Nikai recently expressed his wish for Japan and China to warm their relationship and said he expected Chinese President Xi Jinping to soon confirm his visit to Japan, one that has been delayed since April. He also said that "the relationship between Japan and China had been through a long winter, but now it is absolutely certain that springtime has arrived."

Suga has been a detail oriented person and knows how to handle the power balance within the LDP and was the real engine of the long-lasting Abe administration, Nakabayashi said.

However, more governmental activities and real decision making of the Suga administration have to be observed in order to understand his views on China, he added.

"PM Suga is not a copy of Shinzo Abe," Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations said.

There may be similarities in their understanding of Japan's priorities and the policies designed to achieve economic growth, social transformation and foreign policy, but Suga has had a very different political journey, and has a very different set of political skills, she noted.

"Since coming into office last week, PM Suga has identified governance reform as his signature issue. He has emphasized the need for Japan's government to become more rational, and to move expeditiously into the digital era. It will be interesting to see how these skills translate into the prime minister's role," she said.

Nagy of the International Christian University made a more specific comparison, saying Suga has already raised the issue of raising the consumption tax to deal with the social welfare needs of today’s and tomorrow’s aging society, which was different from Abe who tried to rewrite Japan’s social contract so that resources could be diverted to the youth rather than the elderly.

He also thinks Suga will be more domestically focused and will likely enlist a skilled set of cadres to implement and execute foreign policy, and that may include former PM Abe as some sort of special envoy or senior statesman to manage the most critical Japan-U.S. relationship.

Kato of the University of Hong Kong felt Suga should go beyond the Abe administration, which had to deal with a lot of personal and cabinet scandals, to show that the new administration would be much cleaner, not just a copy of his predecessor.

Davis of Harvard University said that as the son of a farmer, Suga has a very different personal background from that of Abe and this would allow him to separate himself from the "problems of the Abe administration with corruption and extreme right wing nationalist affiliation."

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