For newly minted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, choosing Indonesia — and Vietnam — for his first overseas trip since being inaugurated in September appears to be a logical step. His predecessor, Shinzo Abe, may have been the best buddy of United States President Donald Trump, and with Suga’s administration seen as a continuation of Abe’s tenure, visiting Washington would likely be a safe choice. But with the Trump administration appearing to be entering its endgame — with Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden leading in the polls by a double-digit margin — rushing to meet the Donald would bring few tangible results, if any.
After all, with Abe’s resignation, the bromance between the two leaders appears to be over.
Given that visiting China or other countries in the Northeast Asian region could be considered a major diplomatic faux pas, Indonesia is the safest option for Suga’s overseas trip.
And with China looming over the Asia Pacific region, making a first stop in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Monday, Suga appeared to have made a significant geopolitical gesture. After all, Vietnam was also the destination of Abe’s first foreign trip at the start of his second administration.
With Vietnam being one of the countries in Southeast Asia that have territorial disputes with China, Suga could rely on the Communist country to have a rather assertive stance on its neighbor to the North.
On Monday, Vietnam confirmed just that. During their bilateral talk, Suga and his counterpart, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, affirmed the defense cooperation between the two. Also, in his speech at a university in Hanoi, Suga criticized actions in the South China Sea as “going against the rule of law,” a veiled attack against what he deemed China’s assertiveness in the disputed waters.
After making such a strong statement in Hanoi, the Japanese prime minister will likely hit a more subdued tone in Jakarta, not only because Indonesia has less problematic relationship with China, but also because Suga has every interest in keeping Indonesia happy, simply to prove the point that having Japan as a primary partner could deliver greater benefits for Indonesia and the region.
The successful construction and opening of the first line of the Jakarta MRT shows that Japan can be a reliable partner for Indonesia in delivering such goods. And seen against the backdrop of the glitch-ridden construction of the China-sponsored railway project to connect Jakarta and Bandung, the MRT was a shining example of how successful a Japan-sponsored project can be.
As if to respond to criticism that Japan had done very little to help Indonesia and the region in dealing with COVID-19, it is expected that the pandemic will be one of the key topics to be discussed by Suga and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, on top of business and investment matters.