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For Japan’s New Prime Minister, Personnel is Policy… and Politics

23 Dec 2020
By Dr Bryce Wakefield
Office of the Prime Minister of Japan and Cabinet
Source: @kantei,

As chief cabinet secretary in the Abe administration, Suga Yoshihide was adept at recommending the right people for the right cabinet posts. What do Prime Minister Suga’s cabinet picks tell us about his foreign policy?

This is an article published earlier this year and selected by our committee of commissioning editors as one of the best of 2020.

Japan’s new prime minster, Suga Yoshihide, cleaves more than anyone to the notion that personnel is policy. For almost eight years as the nation’s chief cabinet secretary under outgoing Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, it was Suga’s responsibility to ensure members of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were in line with its leadership. He wisely counselled Abe to reject ideological choices for ministerial posts, avoiding the display of incompetence that marred Abe’s first term as prime minister (2006-2007). He also oversaw reform of the civil service, allowing the prime minister and cabinet office to directly select the nation’s most senior bureaucrats. This was probably the most understated and the most important initiative of the Abe administration.

Working with Abe’s endorsement as prime minister meant that Suga had more freedom to recommend cabinet ministers based on competence rather than politics. As long as Abe was popular and exercised sufficient leadership, he could mollify the factional rivalry that has often been a feature of the LDP. As prime minister, ironically, Suga has to be more sensitive to the factions within the party. Abe’s term as prime minister was the longest on record, and there are several members within the party who see Suga as a placeholder and want to create their own legacies as leader.

That does not mean, however, that all Suga’s appointments follow a logic that caters to party factions. Suga has made important choices that will affect his relations with countries in the region, including Australia.

Suga has indicated that his administration may seek opportunities to improve Tokyo’s relations with Beijing, and he may come under pressure from Nikai Toshihiro, who leads the most powerful LDP faction and who wants better relations with Beijing, to do so. However, Nikai will retain his position as LDP secretary general both catering to Nikai’s status and ensuring that his focus will remain on electoral strategy and party politics.

Although Motegi Toshimitsu has been in the role of foreign minister for less than a year, his reselection will provide continuity in an area where Suga has lacked experience. As minister for economic revitalisation, Motegi played a key role in successful trade talks with the United States, demonstrating his ability to effectively handle the erratic Trump administration. The skills and connections he has cultivated will prove invaluable as Motegi continues to engage in contentious security cost-sharing negotiations with Japan’s American ally.

Meanwhile, Motegi, something of a hardliner, will provide useful counterbalance to Nikai on China, meaning that Japan will have a key voice in the cabinet pushing back on Beijing’s excesses, like its increasingly confrontational activities over territorial disputes in the East China Sea.

While there has been some suggestion that a new leader may create space to improve relations between Tokyo and Seoul, we should not hold our breath for a breakthrough in this area with Motegi in office, even if Washington pushes for closer ties between the two regional US allies. Conservatives in Japan are exacerbated with the Moon Jae-in administration, which they see as having shredded both long-standing and new agreements on historical reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Australian negotiators in the departments of defence and foreign affairs and trade are likely disappointed about Abe’s departure, as good relations between Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison were crucial to expediting talks on a reciprocal access agreement that would see the two nations’ militaries work closer together. Nevertheless, the continuity that Motegi provides in the role should be of some solace to Canberra, as it is his ministry, not the Japanese Ministry of Defense, that takes the lead on these talks.

Indeed, Suga’s pick for defence minister, while surprising, is somewhat less inspiring. While he has some relevant experience as parliamentary secretary for defence, Kishi Nobuo’s appointment is an extraordinary leap in an unremarkable career. Kishi is Abe’s brother, although he was adopted by Abe’s uncle and raised as his cousin. He is in the same faction as Abe and shares the former prime minister’s views. There may be some speculation, therefore, that his appointment is a way of retaining the former prime minister’s influence in the cabinet, notably as Abe attempted to set the tone on security policy by issuing a statement on missile defence before leaving office.

However, this would likely be an overstatement. Suga and Abe are close, and the new prime minister can always call on his predecessor’s advice regardless of his defence pick. Kishi’s appointment was clearly a choice made to cater to factional politics and may signal that in general, the Suga administration will put defence issues on the backburner. This would be a disappointment to Australia, as the defence relationship has flourished in recent years.

Indeed, Canberra will be sad to see Kono Taro, Abe’s defence minister, leaving his position after only one year. Kono has been a dynamic figure in the defence role and, consistent with Abe’s overall approach to the Indo-Pacific, has enthusiastically sought to create innovative defence partnerships, notably with Australia and India, to counter China’s growing power play in the region and the challenges it poses to the rules-based international order.

While it is possible to see Kono’s transfer as catering to factional leaders who are never comfortable with the degree of independence that Kono displayed at defence, his new portfolio, administrative reform, is central in Suga’s new cabinet. Suga is a neoliberal reformer who was crucial to bureaucratic reforms in the early period of Abe’s most recent rule. Kono’s appointment to this post shows that Suga places enormous trust in Kono and is providing him with the opportunity to show that he is a well-rounded politician and therefore leadership material. This should bode well for Australia in the future.

For now, though, Japan’s government may be more inward focused than under the Abe administration. Rhetorically at least, we will likely see a broad commitment to the values that underpinned Abe’s approach to foreign policy, although there will likely be less focus in such important areas as innovation in Japan’s defence relationships.

Broadly, Suga is sticking to his instincts, retaining or reassigning competent ministers from the Abe administration to key portfolios, while awarding what he sees as lesser posts to ameliorate factional competition.  The severity of this competition may in the coming months decide whether Suga becomes simply a caretaker, who holds his position for a year until a leader who can more deftly handle party divisions takes over. Nevertheless, some of the personnel decisions that Suga is making now will auger well for Japan’s future.

Dr Bryce Wakefield is national executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He was the associate responsible for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington DC (2009-2012) and lectured in Japanese politics and international relations at Leiden University in the Netherlands (2012-2018). He lived in Japan for six years.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and can be republished with attribution.