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? 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.
“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.”