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Middle Eastern Black Swans dot China’s Belt and Road

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If any one part of the world has forced China to throw its long-standing foreign and defense policy principles out the window and increasingly adopt attitudes associated with a global power, it is the greater Middle East, a region that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to north-western China, a swath of land populated by the Arab, Turkic and Persian worlds.

It was a series of incidents in 2011 during the popular Arab revolts that drove home the fact that China would not be able to protect with its existing foreign and defence policy kit its mushrooming Diaspora and exponentially expanding foreign investments that within a matter of a few years would be grouped as the infrastructure and connectivity-driven Belt and Road initiative linking the Eurasian landmass to the People’s Republic.

Policy principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, an economically-driven win-win approach as a sort of magic wand for problem solution, and no foreign military interventions or bases needed reinterpretation if not being dumped on the dustbin of history.

The incidents included China’s approach to the revolt in Libya as it was happening when it deviated from its policy of non-interference by establishing parallel relations with the opposition National Council. The outreach to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qadhafi’s opponents did not save it from being identified with the ancien regime once the opposition gained power. On the contrary, the Council made clear that China would be low on the totem pole because of its past support for the Qadhafi regime.

The price for supporting autocratic rule in the greater Middle East meant that overseas Chinese nationals and assets became potential targets. To ensure the safety and security of its nationals in Libya, China was forced to evacuate 35,000 people, its most major foreign rescue operation. The evacuation was the first of similar operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The evacuations didn’t stop militants in Egypt’s Sinai from kidnapping 25 Chinese nationals and radicals in South Sudan from taking several Chinese hostages. The kidnappings sparked significant criticism on Chinese social media of the government’s seeming inability to protects its nationals and investments.

With Uyghurs from China’s strategic north-western province of Xinjiang joining militant jihadists in Syria and two Uyghur knife attacks in Xinjiang itself in the cities of Hotam and Kashgar, the limits of China’s traditional foreign and defense policy meshed with its increasingly repressive domestic approach towards the ethnic Turkic people.

Finally, the greater Middle East’s expectations were driven home in a brutal encounter between Arab businessmen and ethnic Chinese scholars and former officials in which the Arabs took the Chinese to task for wanting to benefit from Middle Eastern resources and trade relations without taking on political and geopolitical responsibilities they associated with a rising superpower.

Add to all of this that in subsequent years it was becoming increasingly difficult for China to remain on the sidelines of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and rivalries. This was particularly true with President Donald J. Trump’s coming to office. The greater Middle East’s problems escalated with Mr. Trump’s abandonment of any pretence of impartiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; his heating up of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran by withdrawing from the 2015 international agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program; and his toying with attempting to change the regime in Tehran that encouraged Saudi Arabia to step up Saudi support for Pakistani militants in the province of Baluchistan; the likely return of Uyghur jihadists in Syria to Central and South Asia that has prompted the establishment of Chinese military outposts in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and consideration of direct military intervention in a possible Syrian-Russian assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria; and finally the potential fallout of China’s brutal crackdown in Xinjiang.

Already, the events in 2011 and since coupled with the mushrooming of Belt and Road-related investments has led to the creation of the country’s first foreign military base in Djibouti and the likely establishment of similar facilities in its string of pearls, the network of ports in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

China’s potential policy dilemmas in the greater Middle East were enhanced by the fact that it doesn’t really have a Middle East policy that goes beyond its shaky, traditional foreign and defence policy principles and economics. That was evident when China in January 2016 on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese head of state in seven years, issued its first Middle East-related policy white paper that fundamentally contained no new thinking and amounted to a reiteration of a win-win-based approach to the region.

Moreover, with China dependent on the US security umbrella in the Gulf, Beijing sees itself as competitively cooperating with the United States in the Middle East. That is true despite the US-Chinese trade war; differences over the Iranian nuclear agreement which the United States has abandoned and China wants to salvage; and Mr. Trump’s partisan Middle East policy.

China shares with the United States in general and even more so with the Trump administration a fundamental policy principle: stability rather than equitable political reform. China’s principle of non-interference is little more than another label for the US equivalent of long-standing support of autocracy in the Middle East in a bid to maintain stability.

In some ways China is learning the lesson, despite recent developments in Xinjiang, that US President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor and subsequent secretary of state, learnt on 9/11. Within a matter of weeks after the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, Bush and Rice suggested that the United States was co-responsible for the attacks because of its support for autocracy that had fuelled anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. It was why Bush launched his ill-conceived democracy initiative.

China, as a result of its political, economic and commercial approach towards the Belt and Road, is starting to have a similar experience. Chinese overseas outposts and assets have become targets, particularly in Pakistan but also in Central Asia.

The kidnappings in 2011 in the Sinai and South Sudan were the beginning. Uyghurs joined groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda not because they were pan-Islamist jihadists but because they wanted to get experience they could later apply in militant struggle against the Chinese.

Beyond profiling themselves in fighting in Syria, Uyghurs have trained with Malhama Tactical, a jihadist for profit Blackwater, the private military company created by Erik Prince.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan is on the rise.

Iranians are grateful for Chinese support not only in the current battle over the nuclear accord but also in the previous round of international and US sanctions. They feel however that last time round they were taken for a ride in terms of high Chinese interest rates for project finance, the quality of goods delivered, and a perceived Chinese laxity in adhering to deadlines.

Resentment of the fallout of the Belt and Road investment taps into the broader threat involved in supporting stability by backing autocratic regimes That is nowhere truer than in the greater Middle East, a region that is in a period of volatile, often bloody and brutal transition. It’s a transition that started with the 2011 Arab revolts and has been pro-longed by a powerful Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led counterrevolution. Transitions take anywhere from a quarter to half a century. In other words, the Middle East is just at the beginning.

China, like the United States did for decades, ignores the rumblings just below the surface even if the global trend is toward more authoritarian, more autocratic rule. 9/11 was the result of the United States and the West failing to put their ear to the ground and to take note of those rumblings.

Of course, current rumblings may never explode. But the lesson of the people’s power movement in the Philippines in 1986, the video in late 2010 of a fruit and vegetable vendor in Tunisia who set himself alight that sparked the Arab revolts, months of street and online protests in Morocco in the last year, the mass protests in Jordan earlier this year against a draft tax bill that have now restarted because of the legislation’s resurrection, and the current protests in the Iraqi city of Basra potentially are the writing on the wall.  All it takes is a black swan.

Said Financial Times columnist Jamil Anderlini:” China is at risk of inadvertently embarking on its own colonial adventure in Pakistan— the biggest recipient of BRI investment and once the East India Company’s old stamping ground… Pakistan is now virtually a client state of China. Many within the country worry openly that its reliance on Beijing is already turning it into a colony of its huge neighbour. The risks that the relationship could turn problematic are greatly increased by Beijing’s ignorance of how China is perceived abroad and its reluctance to study history through a non-ideological lens… It is easy to envisage a scenario in which militant attacks on Chinese projects overwhelm the Pakistani military and China decides to openly deploy the People’s Liberation Army to protect its people and assets. That is how ‘win-win’ investment projects can quickly become the foundations of empire.”

The Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang could just be a black swan on multiple fronts given the fact that its fallout is felt far beyond China’s borders. For starters, the wall of Western and Muslim silence is cracking with potentially serious consequences for China as well as the Islamic world.

What is happening in Xinjiang is fundamentally different from past incidents including protests against a novel by Salman Rushdie and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa ordering his killing; the 2006 Muslim boycott of Danish products because of controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, and the more recent protests sparked by the burning of a Qur’an by a Florida evangelist. The Chinese campaign in Xinjiang challenges fundamentals of the Islamic faith itself.

The earlier incidents were sparked by protests, primarily among South Asians in either Birmingham or Pakistan. This month has seen the first of Xinjiang-related anti-Chinese protests in Bangladesh and India. The first critical article on Xinjiang in the Pakistani press was published this week.

Malaysia is the first Muslim country to speak out with condemnations by a senior figure in Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s political party as well as the country’s likely next head of government, Anwar Ibrahim.

Consideration in Washington of Xinjiang-related sanctions by the Trump administration, coupled with United Nations reporting on the crackdown and a German and Swedish ban on deportations of Uyghurs, puts the issue on the map and increases pressure on Muslim nations, particularly those like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan that claim to speak on behalf of Islam.

This together with the fact that Chinese support for autocratic or authoritarian rule creates a potential opportunity to export its model of the surveillance state, the most extreme example of which is on display in Xinjiang, constitutes risks and involves potential black swans. To be sure, Pakistan can hardly be described as a liberal society, but it is also not exactly an authoritarian state, yet Pakistan is China’s first export target. And others closer to home could follow.

If all of this is more than enough to digest, factor in the geopolitics of Eurasia, certainly as they relate to the greater Middle East. The Chinese-backed Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance is brittle at best, witness differences over the possible battle for Idlib and the post-war presence of Iran in Syria.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, and to a lesser degree Israel are players in what is a 21st century Great Game. That is particularly true in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as Pakistan and as it relates to port diplomacy in Pakistan’s Gwadar and the Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar.

Add to this the fact that if Saudi Arabia is the world’s swing oil producer, Iran is Eurasia’s swing gas producer with the potential to co-shape the supercontinent’s future energy architecture.

And finally, there are multiple ways that China risks being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry not least if the United States and Saudi Arabia decide to take plans off the drawing board and initiate a campaign to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its Baloch, Kurdish, Iranian Arab and Azeri minorities.

The long and short of this is that the Great Game in Eurasia remains largely undecided and that change in China’s foreign and defense policy is already a fact. The question is how all of this will affect China and how potential obstacles on the Belt and Road will play out.

Edited remarks at the RSIS Book Launch of China and the Middle East; Venturing into the Maelstrom (Palgrave 2018), 20 September 2018

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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What prevents Japan from ratifying the recently assented Nuclear Ban Treaty?

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With the ratification of Honduras, a Central American country, on 24 October 2020, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted in 2017 by the UN General Assembly, crosses the ’50 ratifications’ mark required for its entry-into-force, and is set to become effective on 22 January 2021. But, interestingly, how come Japan, the world’s only nuclear-attacked country, not among the 50 ratified states?

History remembers Japan as the only country in the world falling victim to a nuclear attack that happened 75 years ago, when the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked using air-dropped atom bombs by the United States with the aim of forcing a surrender from the then Empire of Japan in World War-II.

The U.S. factor in Japan’s security policy

Post-war era saw Japan evolving as a strong U.S. ally, including getting security protection under U.S. nuclear umbrella, a hard fact that prevents the Asian economic powerhouse to ratify the Nuclear Ban Treaty, often abbreviated as TPNW, recently assented for entering into force in January, next year.

Despite calls from anti-nuclear activists and Hiroshima-Nagasaki survivors, both living within the country and around the world, Japan’s ruling establishment faces a big conundrum, but limited in decisional autonomy with regard to a matter involving the United States.

A politician representing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said that even though his party share the idea behind the treaty, it would be too unrealistic to move in the direction of ratification, hinting at Japan’s difficulty to handle how US would perceive such a move that can translate into an open disregard for US-led security arrangements in the region.

Moreover, the perceived threat from across the Sea of Japan, arising from a dictator-ruled, nuclear-armed Pyongyang and a recently more assertive Beijing looms over the island state, something that naturally brings Japan closer to the US.

Moreover, for decades, the security alliance with Japan has been a significant factor in US foreign and defence policies in East Asia, and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s post-war security arrangements with the United States

Signed in 1951, the early ‘US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty’ was a ten-year, renewable pact that envisaged how Japan would allow U.S. forces to remain on Japanese soil after the country regained its sovereignty, in light of a new pacifist constitution.

This pact combined with the ‘Yoshida Doctrine’, a postwar policy attributed to Shigeru Yoshida, former Prime Minister of Japan, which stipulated Japan’s reliance on the US for its security needs so the government could focus on economic re-building.

The 1951 agreement was revised in 1960, granting US the right to establish military bases on Japanese islands in exchange for a renewed commitment to defend Japan in the event of an attack. These bases gave the US its first permanent military foothold in Asia.

In 1967, PM Eisaku Sato unveiled the ‘Three Non-Nuclear Principles’ (no possession, no production, and no introduction)to cool down tensions surrounding nuclear arms on US bases in Japanese soil. Since then, Japan has relied on the US nuclear umbrella for deterrence capabilities.

Today, according to a US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, there are more than 80 US military facilities in Japan, including key ones in Okinawa and Yokosuka. More U.S. service members are permanently stationed in Japan than in any other foreign country.

The aforementioned close security ties of Japan with the United States act as a barrier for the island state to ratify the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

What does the TPNW entail?

The treaty is going to be the first legally-binding international pact to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal of total elimination.

As it was agreed upon, in 2017, when at least 50 countries ratify the treaty, it will qualify for entering into force within the next 90 days i.e. 22 January, next year.

Many international security analysts, however, questions the efficacy of the treaty as an instrument of war-prevention and disarmament as it does not involve any of the strongest, five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P-5), namely, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China, all of them nuclear states along with India, Pakistan, North Korea, and sometimes ambiguously, Israel too.

However, over a quarter of local assemblies across Japan have adopted a written statement demanding that the national government should sign and ratify the TPNW, a difficult choice for Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the United States has been urging countries not to ratify the Treaty, and stated that itself and all the other NATO allies will stand unified in their opposition to the potential repercussions of the TPNW. Washington has also sent letters to the countries that have ratified the treaty, requesting their withdrawal from it.

TPNW requires that all ratifying states should never under any circumstances develop, test, produce, acquire, or possess nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. It also bans any potential transfer of nuclear materials among each other.

The other treaty to keep checks on horizontal spread

Year 2020 also marked 50 years since another pact aimed at preventing the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons entered into force, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or NPT, in 1970.

While Japan has managed to ratify the NPT in 1976, six years after signing the treaty in 1970, its decisional autonomy with regard to TPNW is much more complex.

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Do not panic, we are Chinese: China’s response to the pandemic

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In Europe, in the United States and in South America, the feared second wave of Covid-19 epidemic is spreading. It is generating not only panic among the public and the institutions, but it is beginning to put health systems and economies under stress. They were starting to recover with difficulty after the impact of the first wave of the epidemic which, between the winter and spring of this year, made the pace of industrial and manufacturing production and productivity rates in the trade, tourism and catering sectors plummet globally, with figures suggesting a decidedly dark future.

In Italy, faced with the increase in infections which, however, does not mean an increase in the number of sick people, the Government has decided to delegate to the Regions’ Governors the power to implement measures to limit individual and collective freedom in the name of a “state of emergency” which has been going on since last March and seems bound to accompany us also in the coming months. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, an ominous and worrying word, “curfew”, has reappeared in official communiqués and news reports.

Over the next few days, in the Campania and Lombardy Regions, it will be forbidden to circulate in the streets from 11pm to 5am, while the purchase of alcohol and the opening hours of shopping centres, bars and restaurants will be restricted. Just to complete an increasingly tragic scenario, on October 20 last, the Italian Health Minister, Roberto Speranza, urged Italians to “stay at home as much as possible” with a voluntary lockdown that seems to be a prelude to the adoption of measures that could bring us back to the situation of last spring with incalculable social and economic damage.

Curfews, lockdowns, targeted or generalised closures are now common practice also in France, Great Britain, Ireland and Spain which, like Italy, have suffered the devastating economic impact of the first wave and could be brought to their knees by the new pandemic emergency.

At this juncture we have to ask ourselves a question: what happened and what is happening in the country where it all began? How are things going in China that in our media, obsessively focused on domestic troubles, is mentioned only superficially and in passing?

“China is Near” was the title of a 1967 movie directed by Marco Bellocchio, that evoked the unstoppable expansion of the Maoist thinking. Today we must say that “China is far away”, encapsulated in the stereotypes developed by Western culture, which prevent us from seriously analysing its political, economic and social evolution and, above all, from drawing lessons from the political and health model that has enabled China to come out of the Covid-19 emergency with its head held high.

On September 22 last, in a blunt speech – as usual -at the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump accused China of being responsible “for spreading this plague throughout the world” and – to further underline the concept -he dismissed the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus”. In the same forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping soberly urged all countries affected by the epidemic to follow his country’s example and “to abide by the indications of science without attempting to politicise the problem”.

Figures clearly demonstrate that the Chinese model is important and worthy of attention. In China, where it all began in December 2019, out of a population of about 1.4 billion inhabitants, the Covid-19 epidemic has so far caused 4,739 deaths out of 90,604 sick people. In the United States, over the same period, out of a population that is about one fifth of China’s, 7,382,194 cases of infection were recorded that led to the death of 209,382 people (data provided by the English medical journal, The Lancet, October 8, 2020).

Great Britain, with a population twenty times smaller than the Chinese population, had to deal with five times more infections than China and ten times more deaths.

These are the figures of October 20 last, referring to the whole of China: 19 cases of illness, all imported from abroad. 24 asymptomatic infections and 403 cases testing positive kept under observation. All, except one, imported from abroad(!). Figures which, as you can see, are globally lower than those recorded since the beginning of the emergency in one single Italian region!

Faced with these figures, it seems difficult to shirk a simple, dual question: how could China fight the epidemic and keep it under control? Hence why do we not follow its example by drawing on its experience?

China was accused of responding late to the first outbreak of the epidemic in December 2019 and notifying late the World Health Organization (WHO) of a new outbreak. Both accusations are completely false.

After the outbreak of the new virus in late December, Chinese scientists isolated and identified the genome sequence of Covid-19 on January 10, 2020 and a few days later, after alerting the WHO, the authorities started to take countermeasures.

China was ready for the emergency: since the SARS epidemic – a virus similar to Covid-19 – had caused just over 700 deaths in 2002, but very serious damage to the economy due to the stop of flights, tourism and exports, the government had given orders to prepare accurate contingency plans to be activated promptly in case of new epidemics. Those plans, which were not prepared and put in a drawer but updated and carefully tested, were activated immediately after the first alarm.

With its 12 million inhabitants, Wuhan – the epicentre of the first infections – was immediately imposed a total lockdown, while in the rest of the huge country the population was urged (without curfews or states of emergency) to follow the most elementary and effective prevention and self-protection measures: social distancing, use of masks and frequent hand washing. It has been said in the West that China has reacted so effectively because it is ruled by an authoritarian regime. Indeed, Confucius has counted much more than Mao for the Chinese. The Confucian social philosophy that not even 71 years of Communist rule have managed to wipe out, with its basic rules of respect for the natural hierarchical order, makes the Chinese a naturally well-behaved, orderly and obedient people. Suffice it to recall that since the beginning of the new pandemic emergency the protests in Hong Kong have decreased until disappearing, while in Europe we are witnessing massive demonstrations with diehard “no-mask” people.

It is, however, the quick response of the Chinese political and health authorities that is at the basis of the undeniable success in fighting the epidemic, at first, and later containing it.

As stated above, Wuhan was immediately isolated and subjected to total lockdown for 76 days, while targeted closures were imposed in the Hubei Province. Throughout the country, 14,000 health checkpoints were set up at the main public transport hubs and, within two weeks since the “official” outbreak of the pandemic, in the city of Wuhan alone 9 million inhabitants were tested.

As one of the main producers and exporters of health equipment, China was not caught unprepared in terms of hospital supplies and individual protection devices: in short, no mask crisis.

While in the United States and Europe, despite the lockdown, people did not seem to be inclined to wear masks (President Trump wore a mask in public only last September), the Chinese immediately followed the authorities’ guidelines with a great sense of discipline. All the municipal security cameras were “converted” to control citizens’ use of masks, while drones equipped with loudspeakers were flown over all areas of the huge country to check the inhabitants’ compliance with the rules. The Xinhua State agency released the footage taken by a drone in Inner Mongolia, showing an astonished Mongolian lady rebuked by the drone saying” Hey Auntie, you cannot go around without a mask. Put it on right away and when you go back home remember to wash your hands”. Probably media embroidered the episode a bit, but certainly in China they did not witness the summertime movida that took place in Rome, Naples or Milan, which is at the basis of the many troubles with which we are currently confronted.

On February 5, 2020 the first Fancang hospital was opened in Wuhan, a prefabricated structure dedicated to the treatment of non-severely ill people, while traditional hospitals were reserved for the treatment of severely ill people. The use of Fancang hospitals (dozens of them were built) made it possible to limit the staying at home of people with mild symptoms, but anyway sources of contagion, within their families – the opposite of what is happening in Italy where the people with mild symptoms are advised to stay at home -and prevent the quick spreading of the virus starting from families. The Fancang hospital network made 13,000 beds available and was dismantled as from May 10, 2020 when the first wave of the epidemic ended in China and was not followed by a second wave. To avert this danger, the Chinese authorities have relaxed “internal” checks and made the control measures for those coming from abroad very strict. At a time when in Spain and Italy the checks for incoming travellers are practically derisory, in China all those who enter the country, for whatever reason, are subject to tests and strictly controlled quarantine.

In essence, China has first fought and later controlled the spreading of the Covid-19 epidemic, with drastic but rational measures and above all understood and accepted by a population educated by Confucius to respect hierarchies and discipline. China can currently be an example for the rest of the world and it is there to testify that with strict, but intelligent measures even the most dangerous situations can be tackled successfully.

It is an example that should be studied and followed without the typical arrogance of the “white man”, also considering an important fact: while the economy of Italy and of its European partners is hardly growing, China’s GDP growth rate is 4.9% higher than last year.

There is much to learn from China both in terms of managing a health emergency and in terms of protecting the economic system.

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Suga Faces A Tough Road Ahead Without Enough Political Juice

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image source: japan.kantei.go.jp

Authors: Alexandre Uehara and Moises de Souza

The quantity and dimensionality of problems inherited by a sober and discrete Yoshihide Suga as the first new Japanese Prime Minister in almost a decade will demand that “Uncle Reiwa,” as the statesman is known, employ the skills that he has so amply demonstrated in the past: the ability to negotiate and find elegant solutions to complex questions. Suga’s competence as a negotiator was recognized as an important factor behind the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which entered into force on December 30, 2018. This agreement—considered doomed to failure after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the TPP in January 2017—succeeded largely thanks to the vital leadership and tenacity of Japan, with Suga playing a key role behind the scenes. Suga also took the lead during the EU and Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement signed in 2019, considered by many as another example of outstanding negotiating performance. With such a resumé, these skills and experience proved critical in Suga’s victory in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership race, enabling him to garner support from a wide array of sources, ranging from LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to various factions within the Komeito, a partner in the coalition government.

The question now is whether his past performance can be replicated as Suga targets the current challenges that so recently have fallen into his lap. He is taking the helm at a delicate moment for Japan, with uncertainties that will force him to show, domestically and abroad, what kind of leadership Japan will enjoy after a larger-than-life figure like Abe Shinzo steps down. And these challenges are coming from all quarters: the economy, public health, and regional security, just to name a few. Each of them has the potential to shape the future of the nation and the reputation of its prime minister, and certainly Yoshihide Suga is no exception. On top of that, legacy problems remain. On the one hand, the implicit promise of continuity with Shinzo Abe’s policies played a crucial role in winning the LDP the elections: on the other, this very factor is an element of concern, since opinion polls were already detecting signs of decline in the popularity of Abe’s cabinet. If Suga has any political ambition left, he cannot afford to make any mistakes in the short- and medium-term.

On the domestic front, there are two important and interrelated problems: The COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. These coterminous phenomena essentially represent a contradiction between uncertainty and reality. While few in Japan are clear about whether the current pandemic will turn into an ongoing ebb-and-flow in terms of virus contagion rates, the economic impact as a result of the response measures is already real. The profound effects have been translated into a new period of recession this year, an experience with which the Japanese a real ready very familiar, given their recent past. To make matters worse, the medicine intended to heal the wounds of economic recession was neutralized by the virus. Operating under the old adage that you have to spend money to make money, Tokyo expended over US$5 billion, with plans to spend US$2 billion more in 2020,to prepare the city to host the Olympic Games. Prospects showed that these investments would pay off. According to a report published in June 2020, it was projected that the Olympics would impact the Tokyo economy alone to the tune of almost US$190 billion, with a spill over effect on the overall Japanese economy of nearly US$300 billion and a potential impact of 0.2% of its GDP. Based on the same prospects, Japan signed an accord in 2013 with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), assuming total responsibility to bear all the costs alone in the (at that time improbable)event that the games would have to be postponed. Well, in what one might call the Forest Gump Effect, to wit: “life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get,” the games were indeed postponed. Investors, according to reporting by Bridgestone, reported losses of around US$3 billion so far as a result of the postponement. It also affected the IOC, which registered losses of more than US$800 million. For Japan’s economy, Goldman Sachs is calculating losses of about US$5.1 billion in terms of domestic consumption alone. Suga will have to find a solution for this imbroglio, which even Abe could not or did not have time to figure out.

In the international arena, Suga—like all Japanese Prime Ministers before him—will have to walk a tightrope, executing a delicate balancing act between Beijing and Washington. So far, his biggest challenge is to find his place amid the rising tensions between Japan’s two most important trading partners. On paper, the logic is simple: Tokyo has developed initiatives to strengthen its alliance with Washington concerning security, without hurting its bilateral trade with Beijing. In recent decades, the latter has become increasingly economically important to Japan. In practice, this is not an easy job for two reasons: First, the erratic temperament of Donald Trump and the tendency of his administration to play hardball even when negotiating with partners. The trade deal negotiated in 2019 stands as a case in point: Essentially, Japan walked away from the negotiating table with a commitment to give the United States access to its agricultural market in exchange for a vague promise that the Trump administration would not consider Japanese auto imports a “national security threat.” On top of that, Trump made it clear that he still wants Japan to pay for the American military bases on Japanese soil.

The second reason comes from Japan’s powerful neighbour, with an increasingly assertive China under Xi Jinping. In November 2019, after China proudly displayed its new ballistic and hypersonic cruise missile system, Taro Kono (then foreign minister and now the minister for administrative reform and regulatory reform) publicly demanded that Beijing make its military budget and strategic goals transparent, to avoid raising the level of alarm and anxiety in the region. In addition, a few weeks after taking the center seat, Suga had to deal with the presence of two Chinese ships in the disputed waters of the East China Sea—a practice that has been taking place more and more frequently since Xi became chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. It is exactly these episodes of Chinese assertiveness that motivated Yoshihide Suga to choose Vietnam and Indonesia as the destinations for his first official diplomatic trip as prime minister. As much as Abe did, Suga intends to strengthen security ties with both Southeast Asian nations. This, tempered with a degree of restraint in the use of strong anti-Chinese rhetoric, is intended as a clear signal to Beijing: the rules of the game haven’t changed, with or without the presence of Abe Shinzo.

Using the same logic, Suga did not alter the basis of Japan-Taiwan relations that developed so fruitfully on Abe’s watch. In fact, besides working for close relations with Taipei, Abe also developed a friendship with Taiwan’s current President Tsai Ing-wen. Suga’s decision to appoint Abe’s brother, Nobuo Kishi, as defense minister was a clear signal to China that, with regards to Taiwan, it will be business as usual in Tokyo despite the transfer of power. It a secret to no one in Japan (or in China, for that matter) that Kishi enjoys close ties with Taiwan, a place he has visited several times over the years, including meetings with President Tsai, as representative of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The last visit took place on the occasion of the funeral of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in August 2020. Such proximity makes Kishi the most trustworthy channel of communication between conservative Japanese leaders and Tsai, as well as with the Taiwanese elite itself. In response to Nobuo Kishi’s appointment, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a statement that the new minister of defense of Japan must “abide by the one-China principle and refrain from any form of official exchanges with the Taiwan region.”

Few specialists in Japan believe that Yoshihide Suga will have as long a mandate as his predecessor Abe Shinzo. Despite being technically qualified, Suga still lacks enough political juice to retain the position of prime minister beyond the general elections that must take place in one year’s time. The tide may eventually turn in favour of Suga-san, depending on how well he and his new cabinet manage the daunting challenges that they inherited from the previous administration. More than mere negotiation skills are needed, however, and there is no doubt that Suga will have to make some tough decisions that will come to define, in a large measure, his political future post-2021.

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