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Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email sales@hedgeye.com.

Japan & U.S. Relations | Prime Minister Power Shifts - Yoshihide Suga announcing new imperial era Reiwa 2  cropped

Newly Elected Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga in 2019

With this month’s moving media accounts of the surrender ceremony 75 years ago in Tokyo Bay, Japan was briefly front-and-center in the international news columns.

Another, far more current Japan-focused event has kept this key ally on the U.S. front pages: the departure of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and two weeks ago, the naming of a new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga. 

Abe was unique in Japan’s modern history. His eight-year tenure repositioned Japan strategically on the world stage, and he was a stout friend of the U.S. - across multiple Presidential administrations and parties.

Bottom Line: Abe will certainly be missed as the U.S. searches for close friends in this chaotic decade.

One area, however, eluded this seasoned diplomat: bridging the deep historical and ethnic gap with South Korea.

To be clear, Seoul has not been entirely helpful in this regard, resurrecting through their court system last year the issue of reparations owed by Japanese companies for forced labor during WWII; this predictably led to a tit-for-tat response by both countries that widened the gap.

For strategic success in the years ahead - against North Korea and the PRC – uniting these vital U.S. allies in a common purpose can be a game-changer; for Abe, sadly, South Korea remained a virtual blind spot.

Bridging that gap must await decisions by future residents of the White House, the Blue House in Seoul, and the Kantei in Tokyo. 

One such resident since September 16th of course is Yoshihide Suga, who now occupies the residence of Japanese PMs. What will his leadership mean, especially geo-strategically? 

His personal history, especially on foreign affairs, is thin. Domestically his focus has been on stability and evolution, not tectonic change.

But Suga can’t ignore the international scene. His views on the Koreas and China will be critical. Suga so far has said very little about both, signaling a diplomatic stance of preferring, as he said last week, “strategic relations with them, rather than choosing one or the other.”

But elements within his own Liberal Democratic Party are already pushing back strongly, accusing those who prefer accommodating the PRC of underplaying the strategic risks.

And of course, there is the Trump White House. Expect the president and his team to press Suga - as they did with Abe - to be a partner in their China push-back.

Abe was masterful in navigating the “Scylla” of Trump’s personality and the “Charybdis” of Japanese public opinion that’s always uneasy about assertiveness internationally. 

Helpfully, South Korea, immediately in the wake of the Abe departure announcement, signaled an intent to mend ties. While encouraging, there are obvious political limits on how far any leader of either country can travel to bridge deep historic grievances.

And to be fair to Abe on Tokyo-Seoul relations, it would have taken an “Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem” moment for a Japanese PM to succeed in this vital but emotional area. 

To remind, however, even more than the surrender of Japan that we celebrated this month was Japan’s transformation three-quarters of a century ago into a stable democracy and long-term ally of the United States. Few developments have meant more to the creation of the world order we enjoy to this day. 

Eyes now turn to Shinzo Abe’s successor; it’s no exaggeration to say that U.S.- Japan relations are at a crossroads.

If the China challenge is our country’s most critical 21st Century security task – and it is - we need a strong and supportive Japan by our side. It’s now Yoshihide Suga’s turn to demonstrate that support - and for the U.S. to reciprocate!

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ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN

LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.

He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.

Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.