8 September 2021
Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga announced last week that he will resign to allow an open competition for the job on 29 September, ahead of a general election in November.
Suga only took office a year ago, when Shinzō Abe resigned due to ill health after an unusually lengthy eight-year term. Combined with Abe’s earlier stint as prime minister, this made him the country’s longest serving elected leader.
Prior to assuming the prime ministership, Suga was a longstanding ally of Abe, but he had a lower public profile as a likely leader.
Since taking the job, he has lost public support due to the Japanese people’s mercurial attitude towards the Tokyo Olympic Games, his poor management of Japan’s COVID-19 response and his failure to establish an effective leadership persona.
Suga’s resignation opens the way to an unusually contested election, which may include up to four candidates who are younger and more diverse than recent leaders chosen by the Liberal Democratic Party. They are likely to have greater appeal among voters than Suga.
In recent years, Australia has sought to deepen its already strong relationship with Japan as part of efforts to manage China’s assertiveness. Scott Morrison visited Tokyo on his first post-pandemic trip abroad and has talked up Japan’s role in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
But Suga’s resignation raises the prospect that Japan might see another rapid turnover of leaders, as occurred in the years 2006–12, when the country had six prime ministers. If this were to happen again, it could be a challenge for the bilateral relationship.
While the candidates for leadership have tended to publicly support Abe’s nationalistic approach to China, some have taken less hawkish positions on foreign policy in the past, suggesting the possibility of some uncertainty on this issue.
Ultimately, however, Japan’s long-term stature as an Australian ally depends more on the new prime minister’s ability to implement innovative policies to deal with the country’s demographic and economic challenges.
Weaning off China
Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg has told businesses they must be prepared to “pay a premium” to diversify away from China and protect the long-term resilience of the economy.
In an escalation of the government’s efforts to reduce trade and investment dependence on Beijing, he said in a speech on Monday that Australia was experiencing sharper economic pressure from China than most other countries.
Australia is currently more dependent on China for trade than it has been on any country since the United Kingdom in the middle of the last century. China takes up to one third of Australia’s exports and provides about one quarter of its imports. It is also the sixth-largest provider of foreign investment.
However, China has become an increasingly difficult trade partner, and last year it placed sanctions on several of Australia’s commodity exports.
Given China’s role in fuelling Australia’s economic growth over the past two decades, the government’s senior economic policymaker faces a difficult time managing a delicate policy shift. While Frydenberg criticised rising economic coercion on China’s part, he also said exporters were doing well by finding new markets.
Frydenberg said businesses should “be aware that the world has changed” and advised them to adopt a “China-plus strategy”. The government also has initiatives underway to boost trade with India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
However, a group of former government economists issued a study last month that raised questions about how well exporters are really doing, suggesting that they may face lower prices and less certainty in other markets.
The China-plus concept has featured in academic literature and the trade policy of countries such as Japan for more than a decade. Australia will need to come up with more nuanced ideas if it wants to wean itself off its Chinese trade dependence.
Security and climate
A group of former security officials claim that the Australian government is ignoring the impact of climate change on regional stability and the demands it will place on the defence force.
In a report released last week, the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group says Australia has been “missing in action” on the greatest security threat facing the country. By contrast, US military and intelligence agencies have increasingly put the environmental risks of climate change front and centre.
According to the report, the Australian Department of Defence does not have the “expertise and interdisciplinary skill-sets to fully grasp the issue”, and there is “little evidence” that intelligence agencies have made climate issues a priority. It also argues that the public service has “struggled to find its voice” when it comes to offering credible policy ideas.
“Defence mandarins and security analysts have by-and-large focused on traditional but narrow security concepts and downplayed or ignored the issue of climate disruption,” the ASLCG says.
It also notes, however, that the chief of defence forces, General Angus Campbell, has identified “an unstable planet” as one of the three issues that will define the role of the country’s land forces.
The report comes ahead of the UN Glasgow Climate Change Conference in November, at which certain countries, including Australia, will be encouraged to make stronger commitments to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The Australian government has recently made more effort to put climate change on its public agenda. Its increased aid spending under the Pacific step-up policy partly reflects its concern about the issue, and Scott Morrison has highlighted climate change cooperation in recent meetings with leaders of Singapore and Japan.
But longstanding differences within the government on climate change appear to be limiting its longer-term climate focus, which ASLCG argues is necessary now.
Further delays could place even more pressure on ill-prepared defence and emergency services to deal with future climate-related issues, including bushfires and further pandemics.