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Semiconductor War between Japan and South Korea

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Authors: Gleb Toropchin and Anastasia Tolstukhina

In the summer of 2019, a trade conflict broke out between Tokyo and Seoul and the matter is about more than the history between the two countries. The two developed economies have long been locked in a competition on the global cutting-edge technologies market. At the same time, they are links in the same technological chain.

At first glance, the exchange of trade restrictions that is taking place against the background of mutual accusations is nobody’s business but Tokyo and Seoul’s. Nonetheless, the consequences of the confrontation between the two countries have a global nature. The present article analyses the causes of the disagreements and looks at how the situation may develop

Introducing Restrictions and Removal from the “White List”

Despite the events of the colonial past [1], as well as the current territorial disputes that are so typical of Asia’s international politics [2], South Korea is one of Japan’s three largest trade partners. Japan exports into South Korea up to $54 billion in goodsThe key commodities include semiconductors and materials for their manufacture

The dependence of South Korean companies on imports of fluorinated polyimides and photoresists exceeds 90 percent, and their dependence on imports of hydrogen fluoride is around 44 percent (although this figure has fallen gradually from 72 percent in 2010)

However, on July 1, 2019, the Government of Japan announced restrictions on the export of commodities to South Korea that are of critical importance for microelectronics, and on July 4, the changes to the procedure came into force

Given the long-established delivery mechanism, such a political step was a surprise for many. The restrictions mainly affected three key materials for the microelectronics industry: fluorinated polyimides, hydrogen fluoride, and photoresists (these materials are used in the manufacturing of semiconductors and display panels). This measure does not mean that deliveries of these materials to South Korea have been completely stopped; however, from now on, it may take up to 90 days to approve transactions. Additionally, Japan said it would be taking South Korea off its “white list” of trade partners. The list includes states that are believed to be safe from the point of view of exporting strategic commodities and that are granted trade preferences

Let us try to understand why the Government of Japan took such steps

Pressure from Taiwanese and South Korean competitors

In 1986, an agreement was signed between Tokyo and Washington that prohibited Japan from undercutting global semiconductor prices. This step was initially intended to make the United States more competitive. However, even in those circumstances, Japan managed to take a significant chunk of the global semiconductor market from the United States in the late 20th century and retain its high positions until the 2010s. However, as early as 2012, experts noted that pressure from Taiwanese and South Korean competitors resulted in semiconductor sales of Japan’s four chip-makers, Toshiba, Renesas, Sony and Fujitsu taking a marked dip

Samsung Electronics succeeded in mastering the subtleties of developing technologies just at the right time, while Japan began to lag behind in R&D due to problems with formal education, and its revenues from global sales of microelectronics were falling against the backdrop of falling prices and the high exchange rate of the Japanese yen. Among other causes of this phenomenon, Japanese experts cite the desire to create hi-tech goods without account for high costs, and lack of innovative ideas

Today, South Korea is the leading manufacturer of memory microchips. Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix hold two-thirds of the global market. Additionally, both the United States’ Apple and China’s Huawei depend on the products produced by South Korean companies. Integrated circuit units account for 17 percent of South Korea’s exports (the entire microelectronics sector accounts for nearly a quarter of its exports), compared to less than 4 percent for Japan

An analysis of the global microelectronics market demonstrates that, currently, the market particularly values dynamic random-access memory semiconductors (DRAMS) that hold tremendous significance for such cutting-edge technologies as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and robotics. South Korea holds impressive positions in this area as well: Samsung and SK Hynix control 72.8 percent of the DRAMS market and 46.8 percent of the global flash memory market

Reasons for Introducing Restrictive Measures

The East Asia Forum reports that Japan’s strategy of opposing Seoul was developed jointly by the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The Cabinet of Ministers subsequently supported these measures, thereby making the key decision to transfer the issue into the political realm

It appears that Japan’s decision to impose restrictive measures was prompted by the fact that the country has clearly fallen behind technologically on the global microelectronic market, which negatively affects both the country’s economic indicators and its national security

According to the expert June Park, the Government of Japan decided to institute the restrictive measures out of concern for national security, since, in exporting rare materials to South Korea, Tokyo cannot be certain they will be used properly

The Japan Times notes that Tokyo justifies the introduction of increasingly strict export requirements by claiming that confidence in South Korea has been undermined. In particular, some media outlets report that between 2015 and March 2019, no fewer than 156 materials, including hydrogen fluoride, were smuggled out of South Korea. There were also reports of hydrogen fluoride being exported to countries that are under international sanctions (Iran, Syria and even North Korea). Another reason for the restrictions is Tokyo’s concerns that South Korea violates intellectual property rights

South Korea denies all accusations. Its arguments are logical: Iran and Syria are friends of North Korea, therefore, Seoul has no reasons to help their regimes. President of South Korea Moon Jae-in called for the differences to be resolved by diplomatic means. However, the talks held on July 12, 2019, in Tokyo did not yield any results. Consequently, Moon Jae-in instructed the relevant agencies to develop reciprocal measures. At about the same time, there were reports of South Korea possibly filing a grievance with the World Trade Organization. As a result, hearings on the issue were launched in Geneva on July 24, 2019

In late July 2019, news broke that Tokyo was considering further restrictions since Japan believes the re-selling of strategic materials by Seoul to be a violation of the non-proliferation regimes regarding both weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons. In this case, the restrictions would extend to other types of commodities and materials. On August 2, the Cabinet of Japan approved the decision to take South Korea off its “white list” (where the Republic of Korea was the only Asian state), thereby depriving it of trade preferences in regard to the materials mentioned above. The full list exceeds 1100 items

Despite these events, several deliveries of these materials from Japan to South Korea were made in August. However, they did not result in a thaw in bilateral relations. Seoul reciprocated by putting Japan on a restrictive trade list and terminating the military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo

“Wu Wei” American Style

China holds leading positions in deposits of rare-earth metals. Moreover, approximately 90 percent of the world’s rare-earth magnets are manufactured in China. Japanese companies use China’s raw materials to manufacture fluorinated polyimides, hydrogen fluoride and photoresists that are subsequently supplied to South Korea, Taiwan and other countries to be used in manufacturing chips, displays, etc. The circle is complete when these commodities go back to China to be used in the manufacture of finished products (such as smartphones and tablets), creating a sort of a closed-loop. Thus, the manufacture of competitive hi-tech products today is impossible within a single economy, and Chinese companies depend on parts coming from other Asian countries

Tracing the entire technological chain, we can assume that the Japan–South Korea conflict is closely linked to the trade war between China and the United States. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics is hindered by the restrictions on deliveries of Huawei memory chips since the latter is under U.S. sanctions. In turn, interrupting the chain of semiconductors delivery from South Korea will slow down the development of artificial intelligence in China. And who benefits from this? This is a rhetorical question

It would seem that the United States should be interested in cordial relations between their allies in the region, allies that form a sort of counterbalance to China and are ideological antagonists to North Korea. The White House, however, intentionally or unintentionally, demonstrates adherence to the Taoist principle of inaction, or “wu wei” (无为 in simplified Chinese), which entails a conscious refusal to act and the assumption of a contemplative stance. From the outset of the confrontation in July 2019, the United States announced it would not interfere in the conflict. Despite individual experts calling upon the United States to act as an intermediary between the two Asian states, Washington did not change its position

We should also note here that the Japanese company Toshiba announced the construction of a facility for the production of NAND-type (from the English NOT-AND, that is, a binary logical element) flash memory devices in Iwate Prefecture in cooperation with U.S. chip manufacturer Western Digital. We can cautiously assume that the United States and Japan are progressing toward a “technological union” in order to defeat China in the race for domination of the semiconductor industry

Public Opinion

Speaking of the impact that the conflict has on public opinion in both countries, we can quote a survey conducted by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun in mid-September 2019. Overall, slightly less than one third (29 per cent) of respondents admitted that they had a negative opinion of South Korea. This was far more pronounced among older people, which can be linked to their conservative views and the “proximity aberration” phenomenon (put simply, the older generations remember the events of the 20th century well)

As for South Korea, an anti-Japanese “grassroots” campaign has been launched in addition to the “top-down” process. In the second half of the summer of 2019, slogans『 가지않습니다 사지않습니다 』 (Korean for “Do not visit, do not buy”) calling for boycotting trips to Japan and Japanese goods spread on Korean social networks. And it looks like they were successful to a degree. For instance, the Yonhap News Agency reports that the number of South Koreans travelling to Japan in August fell by 60 per cent compared to the same period last year

In the run-up to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the trade conflict has become a reason for manipulating public opinion in South Korea. Additionally, we cannot rule out the possibility that populists use the disagreements between Japan and South Korea to advance their domestic agenda on the eve of the elections to South Korea’s unicameral parliament scheduled for April 15, 2020

Forecast: Cloudy in the East

Losses from the Japan–South Korea trade war may exceed $80 billion. There has already been a drop in sales of South Korean semiconductors manufactured by Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix. Moreover, the conflict threatens to disrupt the entire global technological production chain in microelectronics. The expert Robert Farley described this conflict (and the U.S.–China trade war) as “weaponizing interdependence.” One of the analysts with The Economist Intelligence Unit called this situation “mutually assured destruction.”

The Yonhap News reports that the consequences of the trade conflict have had greater negative effect on the Japanese economy than on the South Korean economy. For instance, in July–August, South Korean exports to Japan have fallen by 3.5 per cent, while Japanese exports to South Korea have dropped 8.1 per cent

The South Korean economy has also suffered against the backdrop of these events. Here, Seoul has only two ways out of this predicament:

-Transitioning to domestic analogues, which LG Display and Samsung Electronics already did in September of this year. Additionally, the country earmarked 2.1 trillion South Korean won in the 2020 budget to overcome the dependence on the export of rare materials from Japan

-Searching for alternative sources of hydrogen fluoride and other rare materials for microelectronics. Media outlets have reported that Russia might be a potential supplier of high-purity hydrogen fluoride. The head of the Korea International Trade Association said that Moscow had offered to supply hydrogen fluoride to Seoul. However, it is not easy for South Korean companies to transition to Russian imports of this and other materials for microelectronics. The physical and chemical properties of the products must be tested for a rather lengthy period of time (upwards of six months)

Apparently, the status quo on the microelectronic market will continue in the short-term, and both parties will seek ways to minimize losses. And we can already see evidence of this. In September and October, the Government of Japan approved deliveries of hydrogen fluoride to Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix

At the same time, if Tokyo and Seoul fail to find common ground in the medium and long term, then the current global technological chain in microelectronics may be dismantled, which will, of course, negatively affect the growth rate of the global economy. However, so as not to end our study on a pessimistic note, let us note that, under the current circumstances, many hi-tech companies around the world, including those in Russia, now have the chance to become new links in the value chain and occupy its niche in microelectronics

From our partner RIAC

[1] In 1910, the Empire of Japan annexed the entire Korean peninsula. Korea essentially became a Japanese colony. The Japanese language and culture were forced onto the Korean people. Up to 200,000 ethnic Koreans served in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II (including future president of South Korea and “father of the economic miracle” Park Chung-hee). Today, Japanese war crimes are a subject of talks between South Korea and Japan. In 2015, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan Fumio Kishida promised 1 billion yen to the victims of violence in compensation, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered a public apology for Japan’s actions during the war.

[2] The dispute concerns the Liancourt Rocks, a group of small islets that the Koreans call Dokdo (“Solitary Islands”) and the Japanese call Takeshima (“Bamboo Islands”). Back in the early 20th century, Japan claimed sovereignty over these islands; however, following its defeat in World War II, it was forced to abandon its colonial acquisitions. On the other hand, the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco does not mention this territory, which gives Japan formal grounds to dispute the sovereignty of the islands where South Korea maintains military and civil infrastructure.

Ph.D. in History, Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, Novosibirsk State Technical University; Associate Professor, Novosibirsk State University of Economics and Management; RIAC expert

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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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