Shinzo Abe was born into Japan’s political royalty. His maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, barely escaped trial as a Class-A war criminal yet he served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960. His paternal grandfather, Kan Abe, served in parliament and his father, Shintaro Abe, was foreign minister. With two terms, 2006–07 and 2012–20, Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. When he resigned on 28 August for health reasons, his popularity was sliding, he was mired in a succession of scandals, and his vim and magic touch had deserted him.
The next general election is due in October 2021. New prime minister Yoshihide Suga doesn’t hail from a political dynasty and has no powerful factional base. His ascent reflects the priority given to stability and continuity in these turbulent times in domestic and global affairs as geopolitical tensions, the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturns roil most countries.
Abe’s foreign-policy and national-security accomplishments will be key parts of his enduring legacy. Few countries have benefited as much as Japan from the post-1945 liberal international order. Abe worked hard to position his country as a solid pillar of that order, its economic weight providing ballast to the order and its commitment to a rules-based world operating as a stabiliser.
Abe memorably declared in Washington in February 2013 that Japan was back, saying: ‘Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country.’ He was fully vested in efforts to revive Japan’s ailing economy; stand up to China on disputed island territories while trying to engage with Beijing to address mutual concerns; deepen the US alliance; increase defence spending; and change the peace constitution by stealth. His conservative vision was tempered by a pragmatic streak that put a premium on advice from trusted experts.
Abe had to contend with the nationalistic, protectionist, transactional and erratic Donald Trump; the relentless rise of China; the transformation of the US–China relationship from strategic engagement to full-spectrum confrontation; and the expansion of strategic horizons from the Asia–Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. To navigate these shifting cross-currents without capsizing the Japanese ship of state, Abe also had to nudge the people into accepting a continual reinterpretation of the constitutional limits on Japan’s security preparedness and policies.
The alliance with the US is Japan’s pre-eminent national security priority. Kishi was instrumental in revising the US–Japan security treaty in 1960 to strengthen the military alliance. Kishi’s dream of restoring Japan’s full independence continued to motivate Abe’s vision of strengthening military links with Washington to insure against a collapse of the Pacific military balance. Abe worked to ensure modern Japan played what he regarded as its proper part in Asia and the world by amending the constitution to permit a more active national and collective defence role, and generally ending Japan’s defensiveness and apologetic pursuit of a foreign policy that advanced its national interests.
Abe invested more heavily than any other world leader in cultivating a personal relationship with America’s notoriously mercurial president and became known as the ‘Trump whisperer’. Conversely, Japan is the linchpin of the Indo-Pacific security order and a critical component of the US’s rebalancing strategy for the region. Abe was the first world leader to meet Trump after his surprise election and joined India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the only two democratic leaders to establish a personal rapport with the volatile president. Yet the ‘bromance’ yielded few tangible rewards, as Tokyo University’s Kiichi Fujiwara noted.
The unchecked nuclearisation of North Korea and the rise of China increased the salience of the US–Japan security treaty. The fear of abandonment by the US is a powerful and constant undercurrent in Japanese foreign policy. Consequently, good relations with China are a hedge against an unreliable US ally in the future.
An unintended outcome of Trump’s weaponisation of tariffs and sanctions to prosecute proliferating US trade disputes was to increase Japan’s leverage at the intersection of geoeconomics and geopolitics. Beijing needs access to Japanese trade, investment and markets to offset US decoupling, while Washington can harness Japan’s potential to check China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
As the China–US conflict intensifies, Suga will find it hard to maintain Abe’s balancing act. An early test will come with the need to decide on the postponed April state visit by President Xi Jinping. A heavily publicised visit would showcase the failure of US efforts to contain China and hand Beijing a major PR coup, but it would also cause disquiet in Japan’s ruling party. Yet, further postponement would be a public humiliation for Xi and hurt Sino-Japanese ties.
The foreign ministers of the Quad nations—Australia, India, Japan and the US—are scheduled to meet in Tokyo in early October and Suga is expected to meet with them. The Quad has served to highlight the values, interests and priorities that Japan shares with the other three.
In an influential essay in 2012, Abe was the first leader to introduce the conceptual vocabulary of a free and open Indo-Pacific as a way of integrating geography, geopolitics, democratic political values and freedom of navigation around the Indian and Pacific Oceans. On 10 September, India signed a mutual logistics support agreement with Japan, complementing its earlier agreements with the US, France, South Korea and Australia. Australia’s 2016 decision to purchase French instead of Japanese submarines was a major disappointment for Abe, as was India’s defection from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership last year.
Abe is likely to remain a key influence on the conduct and contours of Suga’s foreign policy, ensuring policy continuity and exuding reassurance to diplomatic partners. As chief cabinet secretary, Suga was very much part of the inner circle of all key policymaking and thus already has part ownership of the Abe legacy.
The domestic-policy-focused Suga will have his mind concentrated by the need to steer Japan through the coronavirus crisis back to economic prosperity. With only limited foreign policy expertise, he’d be foolish not to utilise Abe’s experience, skills and personal connections around the Indo-Pacific and the world. In dealings with the likes of Trump, Xi, Modi, Scott Morrison and other G20 leaders, Abe will be a diplomatic asset abroad without constituting a political liability at home. Few world leaders can boast such a political epitaph on leaving office. Author
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University and director of its Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Image: Shinzo Abe/Twitter.