In first foreign trip, Suga faces test of diplomacy — and resolve on China
Japan Times -- Oct 17
Since taking office a month ago, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has held a marathon of teleconferences with world leaders and met face-to-face with high-ranking foreign government officials, eager to shake off criticism that he is a diplomatic novice and doubts over whether he can continue the legacy of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Now set to embark on his first foreign visit, heading to Vietnam and Indonesia from Sunday, the prime minister is facing yet another crucial stress test, this time on the global stage.

By picking two prominent members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as his destinations, Suga is demonstrating Tokyo’s resolve to counter an assertive Beijing through Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) policy, and economic and national security cooperation with the region.

Although government officials insist the visit and its objectives are not meant to antagonize China, it will certainly invite close scrutiny from the world’s second largest economy, as well as the United States — with which the Asian giant is locked in a bitter dispute — and others in the region. Many are keen to see how Japan’s new leader will embody his vision for diplomacy in one of the world’s most critical geopolitical arenas.

“The ASEAN is located at the center of the Indo-Pacific region and is critical for achieving a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Suga was quoted as saying during a ruling Liberal Democratic Party board meeting Tuesday. “I hope to present determination, at home and abroad, that Japan will take a leadership role in contributing to this region’s peace and prosperity.” Suga’s first stop will be Hanoi, where he will meet with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, then he will travel to Jakarta to meet with President Joko Widodo, before returning Oct. 21. He had already spoken with both leaders by phone this week to lay the groundwork for his trip.

During the visit, Suga is expected to reaffirm commitment to a FOIP, and infrastructure development with both nations. With Vietnam, Suga hopes to bolster economic ties through the promotion of free trade, diversification of supply chains and national security cooperation. While visiting the country, he is scheduled to deliver a speech on his foreign policy in Asia.

With Indonesia, the prime minister wants to confirm efforts to resume personnel exchanges between both countries that were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also keen to facilitate discussions on exporting defense equipment to the country and on holding the second bilateral meeting between both countries’ defense and foreign ministers soon. Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia with which Japan has a “two-plus-two” dialogue mechanism on international and defense affairs.

Expectations are high for the prime minister’s debut trip abroad, which comes at a time when leaders worldwide are gradually resuming face-to-face meetings that had been halted by the pandemic. Suga will undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before leaving Japan and wear a mask while he is traveling from place to place, but is likely to remove it during official events on the trip. Like Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Suga is exempt from self-quarantine for 14 days after returning to Japan.

Earlier this month, Tokyo hosted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, inviting top foreign affairs officials from the other three “Quad” countries — India, Australia and the U.S.

Suga’s trip is set to be a major moment for the new leader to showcase his diplomatic prowess. While he was running in the LDP presidential race, a prerequisite to becoming prime minister, critics described Suga’s lack of diplomatic experience as a liability, and dismissed the claim that having sat with Abe during teleconferences with world leaders counted as foreign policy credentials.

News source: Japan Times
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