Japan's populist, pragmatic new Premier Yoshihide Suga pushes Shinzo Abe's vision
Tokyo: Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, leaves Sunday on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month, heading to Vietnam and Indonesia. The choice to visit Southeast Asia underscores Japan's efforts to counter Chinese influence and build stronger economic and defense ties in the region, much in line with Abe's vision.
It also reflects pandemic realities. With the U.S. tied up with domestic politics ahead of the Nov. 3 election, Suga was unable to head to Washington straight away for talks with Japan's most important ally after he rose to power, replacing Abe, who resigned for health reasons.
As he emerges from Abe's shadow with promises to work for the people, Suga is proving in some ways to be even more hard-line. That has raised hackles within Japan and carries the potential to rile neighbors who already were disgruntled by Abe's nationalist agenda.
Abe had vowed to restore Japan's waning diplomatic stature and national pride by promoting ultra-nationalistic policies such as traditional family values and amending the post-World War II pacifist constitution to allow a greater overseas military role and capability for Japan.
While Abe traveled abroad relentlessly during his nearly eight years in office, often as Japan's top salesman, Suga mostly stayed home to manage bureaucrats to push economic, security and other domestic policies.
Suga is expected to sign a bilateral defense equipment and technology transfer agreement with Vietnam as part of Tokyo's efforts to promote exports of Japanese-made military equipment. It's a signal that Suga is certain to follow Abe's footsteps in diplomacy.
Meanwhile at home, Suga, best known for his behind-the-scenes work pushing Abe's agenda as chief Cabinet secretary, has deftly used his modest background as the son of a strawberry farmer and a teacher and his low-profile, hardworking style to craft a more populist image than his predecessor. With much of the world, including Japan, occupied with battling the coronavirus pandemic, Suga is focusing more on delivering results back home.