Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Japan tomorrow is no ordinary state visit. It’s the first international trip of the year for Mr Morrison and he becomes the first foreign leader to visit Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at home. They are expected to reach a defence agreement that entrenches an elevated strategic relationship. Alongside deepening bilateral ties, Australia and Japan have an opportunity to steer broader regional outcomes as they seek economic recovery from the pandemic and deal with great power rivalry between China and the United States.
After seven years and eight months in power, the abrupt resignation of Shinzo Abe due to health issues saw Yoshihide Suga installed as Japan’s prime minister on 16 September. After serving as chief cabinet secretary and Abe’s right-hand man throughout the previous government, Suga won the race to be the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and prime minister by positioning himself as a self-made man and the ‘continuity’ candidate.
After seven years and eight months, the Shinzo Abe administration — the longest serving government in Japan’s parliamentary history — ended abruptly in late August due to Abe’s health problems. The merits and demerits of the Abe administration will be the subject of much debate, but at least on global health, especially universal health coverage, it achieved a great deal.
Newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has announced that he will continue the policies of his predecessor Shinzo Abe. Hopefully this will not include Abe’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis.
Since the late 1990s, Japan has urged the United States be tougher on China. Perhaps the United States’ own history shaped its expectation that China would eventually transform itself into a liberal democracy. Japan has never shared this optimism. Because it understood that it would be difficult to impose democratic values on China, Japan has long recognised that it needs to tame the dragon rather than isolate it.
Australia and Japan have been among the global front runners in managing the COVID-19 health crisis and are positioned to lead the lifting of economic restrictions and economic global recovery, if they are able to contain second wave outbreaks of the pandemic.
Despite its ‘high-tech’ image, Japan is in many ways relatively ‘low-tech’. While companies and governments in many countries shifted to ‘telework’ or ‘work from home’ to cope with the spread of COVID-19, many Japanese companies and government offices have been unable to adapt.
Japan’s economy has experienced three consecutive shocks over the past year-and-a-half. The first shock struck Japan in early 2019 when the US–China trade war and slowing economic growth adversely affected Japan’s manufacturing sector. This economic effect was exacerbated by a second demand shock caused by the consumption tax hike from 8 to 10 per cent on 1 October 2019. Just as Japan’s economy was recovering, a third shock caused by COVID-19 dealt the most severe blow, plunging Japan into a full-blown recession.