TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga departed on Sunday afternoon for visits to Vietnam and Indonesia in his first overseas trip, reported Xinhua news agency.
He took over from Shinzo Abe last month, who resigned for health reasons.
Some observers believe that his choosing the two Southeast Asian countries is intended to strengthen Japan’s relations with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries and help revive the Japanese economy. It is expected that Suga’s government will largely follow Abe’s foreign policy in the near term.
For the first overseas trip of Japan’s prime ministers, traditionally, the United States, a close ally, had been the top destination and alternatively, the host country of an international event they attended, they said.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the world, international conferences have mostly gone online instead. Meanwhile, the United States is obviously not a best choice where the presidential election is coming.
Vietnam is this year’s ASEAN chair and it hosts many Japanese businesses, while Indonesia is the most populous ASEAN country and like Japan, a member of the Group of 20 major economies. Both of them have strong influence in Southeast Asia.
According to local media, Suga will seek to beef up ties, especially security cooperation, with ASEAN countries, and further bring them under the framework of the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy that the United States and Japan have pushed for.
Notably, Vietnam and Indonesia were also the first overseas destinations for Abe after he became Japan’s prime minister for the second time in December 2012. Therefore, Suga is also expected to follow the steps of his predecessor regarding foreign policy.
Besides, the Japanese side hopes that Suga’s visit will bring technical trainees from the two countries to Japan as early as possible and thus help with its economic recovery.
Japan’s official data showed that about 410,000 foreign technical trainees were working in Japan by the end of 2019, with Vietnam being the largest source with about 220,000 people. Indonesia was also among the top countries in terms of the number of foreign trainees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left a large number of foreign trainees stuck in their home countries, leading to severe labour shortages in agriculture, manufacturing, construction and other industries in many parts of Japan.
Suga, who positioned himself as the continuity candidate in the race to succeed Abe, has vowed to continue much of Abe’s foreign policy, saying that he will base his foreign policy on Japan-US alliance and promote a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” while working for stable relations with neighbours including China and Russia.
According to local media, Suga, who mainly focused on domestic issues in the past, is likely to initially take a cautious approach to external affairs, avoiding steps possibly to inflame relations with Asian neighbors.
Some Japanese scholars believe that Suga will stay in line with policies of the Abe administration. In the long term, however, he may take his own approach in diplomacy.