The formalisation of the Quad and Quad Plus will likely gain momentum amidst rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, elected with an overwhelming majority in Parliament after a contest within the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), occupied the position of Chief Cabinet Secretary for nearly eight years, before becoming PM. It is a job perhaps unique to Japan. In most countries like India, the similarly sounding Cabinet Secretary is a senior bureaucrat. However, the positions are not the same—the job that Mr Suga occupied till last week is closer to what can be described as the Chief Operating Officer of the Government of Japan, second only to the PM in hierarchy, and is a Cabinet position of an elected Member of Parliament. In terms of day-to-day activities, it spans a wide range from coordinating government policy across Ministries to delivering two live press conferences every working day—one in the morning and the other in the late afternoon —negotiating within the Cabinet, crisis and risk management, and being the interface between the government and ruling party and coalition. It is here that Mr Suga learnt the art of speaking publicly daily without actually saying much. During these past four years when they worked closely together, he and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai became kindred spirits. The political hardball played by Mr Nikai, citing the emergency situation of Mr Abe’s sudden resignation amidst the force majeure pandemic, to give heavy weightage to the votes of MPs as compared to party leaders from the regions, was a critically important manoeuvre that was successful in giving Mr Suga a landslide victory within the ruling Party to elevate him to the post of PM, but may have left ruffled feathers among the leaders of the powerful political factions that comprise the LDP.

Mr Suga’s deep working knowledge of the levers in Japan gives him potentially awesome power—since he has functioned at the interface of the political leadership and the bureaucracy, and developed a reputation as the behind-the-scenes enforcer for the ebullient Shinzo Abe. However, not formally being a member of any large LDP faction is indeed a weakness that he can overcome through cobbling together coalitions with various groupings within the LDP and with its smaller “peacenik” partner the New Komeito Party. Hence, his seven days a week work schedule begins early morning and ends late at night—both times with 100 push-ups to remain healthy amidst a combination of stress and multiple lengthy meetings, many over meals, sometimes even two separate dinners a day.

Born into a family of strawberry farmers in rural Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, he moved to Tokyo after high school, worked in a cardboard factory during the day and attended night classes to graduate from university. Thus, he is a rare exception to the privileged and often hereditary class that dominates Japan’s political landscape. Nevertheless, most of his Cabinet indeed comes from that background. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, and several others were given the same portfolios they held in the Abe Cabinet. Hiroshi Kajiyama, the Minister of the powerful Trade and Industry Ministry (METI), that is the counterpart of at least a dozen Indian ministries, is the son of PM Suga’s political mentor.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, Minister for economic revitalization and the coronavirus response, is also the Chief Secretary of the Japan-India Parliamentary Friendship Association.

The Suga Cabinet is one of absolute continuity with that of Shinzo Abe—with one notable addition—Nobuo Kishi, the new Defence Minister, who is the biological brother of Shinzo Abe who was adopted into the maternal side of their family to continue the family name of their grandfather, the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Abe himself was Prime Minister for 2,822 consecutive days after his second Cabinet was formed in December 2012, for a total of 3,188 days if his first Cabinet is included —both are records for a Japanese Prime Minister.

PM Suga has targeted for reform the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry—a giant conglomeration that takes up one-third of the government’s general account budget, since it includes funding the health and elderly care needs of Japan, among the most comprehensive anywhere, as well as contributions to the Government Pension Investment Fund, the largest pool of retirement savings in the world. Additionally, he seeks to lower mobile telephony costs, spread more resources to the regions, and enhance digitisation.

Indo-Pacific, Quad And Quad-Plus

The economic and military partnership that Japan has with the US will undoubtedly continue unabated. The formalisation of the Quad and Quad Plus will likely gain momentum amidst rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Further, among potential Quad-Plus countries, Vietnam is an obvious choice. New Defence Minister Kishi has strong personal and political ties to Taiwan, that China’s Ch’Ing Dynasty had once ceded “in perpetuity” to Japan after the Japan-China war of 1895. Indeed, in his capacity as an MP, Kishi had visited Taiwan in January this year.

India Can Seek From Prime Minister Suga To Be On Japan’s Trade White List

As PM Suga is intimately familiar with details of Indo-Japan cooperation, beyond the continuity of close personal and strategic ties of the two PMs and advocacy for investment to India, PM Modi can also press to be recognised on Japan’s Trade White List, those countries now numbering 27 that are regarded as very friendly, above board and favoured from a national security point of view too. Not having to deliver reams of documents and applications each time an item is exported or imported is itself a blessing. India can ill afford complacency and the stamp of “difficult country to do business”, which it has from some among the corporate elites and the glitterati. A senior adviser to PM Abe revealed that it took the personal leadership of Mr Abe to place India as a high priority country for Japan, since some in its foreign policy establishment had other nations in mind. But it is a maze of reasons why that derisive label has stuck as explained in recent columns. Is it also a hidden factor that India chose the losing side in the Cold War that never was a major investor in India at all, and some in India’s own foreign policy establishment insist on continuing to attach to them in the name of non-alignment!

Japan’s current system of export controls based on national security was drastically strengthened following the “Toshiba Machinery Incident” disclosed by the US in 1987. From 1982 to 1984, the Toshiba Machinery Corporation subsidiary exported to the Soviet Union nine-axis computer controlled milling machines, applying for a licence describing them falsely as less sophisticated products. It was illegal and a violation of then-existing multilateral arrangements as well because in that era exports of such high-performance machines to the Communist bloc countries were prohibited. The high-tech machine tools were installed at the USSR’s Baltic Naval Shipyard with software supplied by a Norwegian company. This incident created an international uproar because the sophisticated machine tools enabled the Soviets to produce quieter propellers, making their submarines much harder to detect in deep water, according to the US Department of Defence. The incident resulted in the resignation of both the president and chairman of Toshiba, as well as the imposition of severe penalties on its subsidiary.

The idea that India would seek to continue to be non-aligned between countries waging war, guerrilla warfare or usurping territory against India i.e. China-Pakistan juxtaposed with allies, partners, friends or whatever description is to be ascribed to non-belligerents, appears to outsiders to be so ludicrous as to engender disbelief. And this stance when it is seeking investment from the non-belligerents further leads to incredulity. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union of the past, to which India was allied since 1971, but since the USSR disappeared in a heap of catastrophes, the tenor of the rump nation Russia has undoubtedly changed, with it taking succour in PRC’s economic strength. Therefore, expert geopolitical analysts like Prof MD Nalapat of Manipal University have repeatedly described the implications of the new triumvirate of China-Russia-Pakistan. Is India in the name of non-alignment actually seeking to join that grouping also, or attempting to align with the rest of the world that is intensely concerned about that tripartite combination and their satellites over obfuscations on Covid-19 and repeated land-border and maritime aggressions? Japan, that has not signed a peace treaty with Russia since World War II, accusing it of illegally seizing four Japanese islands after Japan became the only country ever to be attacked with nuclear weapons, would continue to be aghast.

All countries and regions are subject by Japan to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) catch-all technology control, including the dreaded category of potential dual-use, except for the following 27 countries, called White List countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Republic of Korea, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

India as a responsible country that has never proliferated ought to be on that list, but is not. With the increasing level of sophistication of goods and services that India imports/exports being both an aerospace and nuclear power, and the dual-use possibilities of India’s increasing technological design, development and manufacturing capabilities, even confusion around those items that can be categorized as potential dual-use should not happen. This is a critically important reason for India to formally join with Japan in a partnership beyond words and smoke-and-mirror lingual contortions, to one where it is included in the above White List of countries that are considered above board in terms of law-abiding allies and partners. If India and Japan are to take their partnership to the next level of investment and trade, it would indeed be wise to do so.