By making Vietnam and Indonesia his first overseas ports of call, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga signalled that he intends to adhere closely to his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy. Seeing that occur so clearly and so early in his term is good news.
Suga was sending essentially the same message, albeit with a different emphasis, when he made his first leader-level phone calls to his ‘Quad’ counterparts, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before setting off to Southeast Asia.
It was equally clear in Tokyo’s announcement that a planned trip by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, to prepare for President Xi Jinping’s oft-delayed visit to Japan, would not be taking place. One Japanese government source said, ‘We are well aware that Beijing wants Wang to visit Japan at a relatively early date. But considering the various circumstances, it’s still too early.’ As Australian ministers and officials are well aware, it is usually the Chinese side that delays planned meetings until ‘circumstances’ change in the other state to Beijing’s favour.
Sound strategic reasoning lay behind Suga’s decision to visit Hanoi and Jakarta, which in the former’s case went beyond its status as this year’s ASEAN chair. Vietnam is emerging as arguably Japan’s most like-minded security partner in Southeast Asia, at least when it comes to geopolitics. And it’s noteworthy that Suga was following in Abe’s footsteps; in 2012, he also made Vietnam his first destination after returning to office for a second, and longer, term. Suga’s choice of Indonesia no doubt hinged on both its geographical centrality in the Indo-Pacific and its sheer size and relative weight, in economic and strategic terms, in Southeast Asia.