Leading from the Kantei: Japan and the Quad

On Tuesday, October 6, Japan will be hosting the second Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “quad” foreign ministers’ meeting  in Tokyo against the backdrop of rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. The “quadrilateral strategic dialogue” also known as QSD or “Quad” started as an ambiguous discussion on the international order launched by Abe Shinzo during his first premiership in 2007 convening major regional allies India, Australia and the United States. However, rather than the Japan-led initiative being driven in reaction to China’s regional assertiveness, U.S. retrenchment, or even by Japan’s influential bureaucracy, it is has much more to do with the office of the prime minister, or the Kantei. Since this institutionalized executive branch takes the lead in foreign policy formulation in Japan, Abe’s Kantei-led diplomacy was arguably what enabled Japan to pursue the Quad.

Abe formed the Quad’s first “informal grouping” in May 2007 and it followed after former Abe administration foreign minister Aso Taro’s “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” speech in November 2006 which focused on values-oriented diplomacy and the rule of law while excluding mention of China. As a result, the new Quad grouping quickly came to be viewed as a strong anti-China frontline, despite the considerable political ambiguity from Japan around what this grouping actually meant to achieve. By September 2007 Abe had stepped down as Japan’s prime minister due to health problems and by early 2008 Abe’s unfinished Quad forum had disbanded partially due to India’s and Australia’s reluctance, but also due to pressure from China. Abe’s replacement, Fukuda Yasuo, with his pro-China tilt ensured there was no talk of the Quad, and by the time the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept into power in 2009, the Quad or any possibility of a Quad-like concept had lost traction.

The Quad discussion forum has made a come back but explaining its rise and fall and its rise again is more counterintuitive than might be expected. First, if the Quad was simply a reaction to the geopolitical context, it does not explain why Fukuda had predispositions to Beijing while Aso did not, and Aso was unsuccessful when he again tried to promote his Arc conceptualization. Secondly, while the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) tenure has often been accused of leaning towards a “pro- China” shift, Stanford University’s Daniel Sneider convincingly argued that the DPJ’s “new Asianism” was actually an effort to manage the rise of China rather than accommodate it, demonstrating that the DPJ shared the same strategic unease about the changing balance of power as policymakers in the LDP. Both Hatoyama Yukio’s and Kan Naoto’s administrations also actively courted India, Australia, and Vietnam on various military and security initiatives. So why didn’t the DPJ advance the Quad, or their own alternative of it, given that the 2010 Senkaku Islands incident precipitated a very serious crisis in Japan’s relations with China?

The answer is found in the Kantei. Both LDP and DPJ leadership between 2006-2012 simply did not have a Kantei that was sufficiently capable and well-staffed to lead such an initiative or any variant of it. Unlike Koizumi, who had successfully led from the Kantei, the first Abe administration, alongside Fukuda’s and Aso’s premierships all stumbled in key areas related to the Kantei and its key personalized appointments (the Cabinet Secretariat, cabinet appointments, and unofficial staff). The DPJ was also unable to lead from the Kantei, with Hatoyama taking a strong anti-bureaucratic stance upon becoming prime minister while also aiming to empower the executive branch. This move greatly undermined his relationship with the bureaucracy and fractured a key source of organizational support.

Upon Abe’s return to premiership in 2012, there was a renewed Japanese embrace of the Quad and greater clarity on the Quad concept. Abe’s 2012 essay titled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond” portrayed a Japan that was willing to be less coy about its motivations this time round. Indeed, from 2017 onwards, the group has met five times, even holding ministerial level talks in New York in 2019. Not only is this a change from Abe’s predecessors, but the shift towards emphasizing an apparent “anti-China” grouping also occurred amidst a rapprochement or “reset” in Japan’s relations with China, with Abe’s historic 2018 visit to Beijing.

Upon Abe’s return to premiership in 2012, there was a renewed Japanese embrace of the Quad and greater clarity on the Quad concept

While external factors such as China’s continued aggressiveness in the East and South China Seas and U.S. unpredictability under the Trump administration have of course been a part of shaping Japan’s foreign policies, Japan’s approaches to them have in no way been the “reactive” of “passive” stereotypes that have frequently characterized Japanese foreign policy for decades. In fact, Japan has been markedly proactive and calculated, primarily because Abe has been able to lead from the Kantei.

Upon returning to office in 2012, Abe immediately significantly expanded the Kantei. He distributed key positions to very close and trusted aides, and this politicization and personalization of key appointments became a key characteristic of the Abe Kantei. He then appointed cabinet ministers that bridged the Kantei and the bureaucracy to help ensure that the bureaucracy remained in the Kantei’s grip. By appointing Yachi Shotaro as secretary general of the newly-formed National Security Secretariat (NSS), Abe elevated a very important figure in the conceptualization of Aso’s Arc and Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific. 

These moves allowed Abe to deal with Japan’s infamous bureaucratic infighting and other disagreements among policy elites, such as those between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) regarding China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative or the Northern Territories negotiations with Russia. It also helped Japan pursue security issues such as the Quad while also continuing to build economic ties with China through Seikei Bunri – Japan’s old policy of separating economic and political issues. In effect, this allowed Abe to be successful in responding or overriding both domestic and systemic structures and gave his Kantei the ability to pragmatically maneuver and control the internal policy formulation process, all while dealing with external pressures.

But with the beginning of Suga’s premiership, the question is whether Suga will be able to lead from the Kantei as his immediate predecessor did. On the first day as prime minister Suga tweeted he is “determined to tear down bureaucratic sectionalism…and also give birth to a cabinet that works for the people.”

Though the Suga Kantei has been branded as a continuation cabinet given his role as Chief Cabinet Secretary for the entirety of Abe’s second term, being factionally independent means that the dynamics in the personalization and politicization of appointments will be slightly different than those of his former boss. As an independent without any factional affiliation, it was the China-friendly LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro that lobbied the main LDP factions to support Suga’s election bid which could very well mean China will continue to get a prominent push from the party.

But as Suga an independent of an LDP faction it means that the dynamics in the personalization and politicization of appointments will be slightly different than those of his predecessors

Additionally, while Suga will likely rely heavily on an experienced Motegi as Foreign Minister, Suga’s replacement of Kono Taro with Kishi Nobuo as Minister of Defense has raised eyebrows. At a time when the party will need a voice to advance a new National Security Strategy, along with policies related to strike capabilities and agreements that would formalize security partnerships with countries like Australia and India, an appointment made for possible reasons of factional influence or personal favors could backfire for Suga.

On the other hand, Suga’s Kantei is already showing signs of proactive pragmatism in balancing complex internal dynamics with structural external pressures – similar to that which Abe showed in the latter half of his second administration. Motegi is reportedly scheduling a potential visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wang for as early as October 2020, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison plans on traveling to Japan to meet Suga as early as November.

Suga’s Kantei is already showing signs of proactive pragmatism in balancing complex internal dynamics with external pressures

The Quad will certainly have a full agenda when it meets, though it does not have an explicit military dimension or even a formal institutional structure. Before Abe’s resignation, the Quad members had already started to focus on supply chain resilience, with Australia, Japan, and India, launching a special initiative around the beginning of August 2020 against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s controversial moves toward Taiwan and Hong Kong. What also remains striking about the Quad is that it has resisted openly identifying China as the primary target it seeks to rein in.

These are just an outline of the broader issues Suga will have to grapple with in terms of working with their respective Quad partner states. But understanding whether Suga’s Kantei will be successful in leading the Quad to coordinate its response to these latest challenges means understanding the changing landscape of Japan’s deeply complex internal foreign policy formulation apparatus, and not just its external environment.

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Vindu Mai Chotani is a PhD student at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. Her dissertation focuses on Abe’s Kantei Diplomacy, while her broader research examines Japanese foreign policy, India-Japan relations, and the evolving security architecture of the Indo-Pacific.

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