At the end of August 2020, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation due to the deterioration of his health caused by chronic ulcerative colitis. As Abe explained, he did not want his worsening health to affect important policy decisions and therefore stepped down [BBC, 2020]. Abe was in office until the ruling Liberal Democratic Party elected a new leader, Yoshihide Suga, who became a new prime minister. Shinzo Abe, to the surprise of many, became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in history, as he served more than eight years from 2012-2020. He also made an incredible act in Japanese political tradition, since he was able to return to the prime ministerial post he previously held in 2006-2007. Moreover, his tenure ended the “tradition” of quick resignations of Japanese prime ministers. With the exception of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s nine prime ministers from 1998 to 2012 saw how public support quickly evaporated within their first months in office. Therefore, it can be noted with certainty that Shinzo Abe will take a special place in Japan’s history, and thus this comment is dedicated to the legacy that he left behind.
Abe’s premiership had several specific goals in foreign policy and defense policy, and some of them were super tasks, which he had tried to accomplish after he returned to the prime ministerial post. In this regard, Shinzo Abe’s main motivation was to try to rid Japan of its perception in the region and beyond as a country that is an economic giant, but a political dwarf. At the same time, it was necessary to send a clear and correct signal to neighbors in the region that Japan’s new approach to defense policy does not threaten their security. Indeed, the states in the Asia-Pacific region always worry about Japan’s ambitions [Pew Research, 2016]. This concern has deep historical roots. First of all, regional countries were alarmed by Abe’s desire to change Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution and his 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where names of military leaders who were responsible for war crimes during World War II are listed, among others. The visit immediately caused a sharp reaction from neighboring countries and even the United States expressed its dissatisfaction [McCurry, 2013]. Later, Abe refused to visit the shrine and understood that voters would not support the radical amendment of Article 9, and he reevaluated his strategy on this issue.
In 2013, the country’s first national security strategy was adopted [Prime Minister of Japan, 2013]. This can be considered a deep change in Japanese defense policy in light of the escalation of the security situation in East Asia. The key concept of the strategy was “active pacifism” [Prime Minister of Japan, 2013]. Japan’s goal is to contribute more actively to peace and prosperity of the world community, including through implementing a variety of practical steps. These actions will enable Japan to find new friends in the international arena, as it already happened with India and Australia. Adopting “active pacifism” means the modification of the legal and institutional framework for diplomacy and national security.
As part of this modification, the Abe government initiated the lifting of several self-restrictions for self-defense: the legislation was adopted allowing the deployment of servicemen of the Self-Defense Forces abroad and the participation in the development of space weapons; bans on export-import operations with weapons were significantly relaxed; and a full-fledged Ministry of Defense was created. However, the most important initiative was the broadening of the interpretation concerning the Self-Defense Forces’ actions. Previously, the Self-Defense Forces had legal grounds to use weapons and participate in combat operations only in the event of a direct attack or in case of an imminent threat. Abe succeeded in expanding the application of this right to Japan’s “friendly countries”. For this, the approval of the law by the parliament was enough, without revising Article 9 [Obe, 2015]. However, these actions nearly cost the Liberal Democratic Party a defeat in the upper house of the parliament, and the support rating of the prime minister himself collapsed to record low levels [Global Times, 2014].
Nevertheless, active steps in the security sphere have become important in the framework of strengthening allied relations with the United States. Against the backdrop of China’s buildup, Washington began to put pressure on its allies in the Asia-Pacific region to take on more responsibility and modernize their own defense capabilities. The White House sent a clear signal that if the situation escalated, allies would be able to provide military assistance to the United States. Moreover, the Abe government sent the message to other major powers in the region that Japan was ready to develop relations in the defense sphere and act as an equal partner. Therefore, throughout his premiership, Shinzo Abe actively developed relations with India and Australia in the hope of creating a strategic triangle. In 2017, the three countries managed to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue [Buchan and Rimland, 2020], where the United States is also included, and sometimes they use this platform for meeting in a trilateral format without the United States.
Abe took the next step in strengthening Japan’s position in the region and beyond in the economic sphere. The first direction in the development of economic cooperation in the region was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP after becoming president, but the remaining participants were able to save the partnership, which is now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) [Sherwood and Iturrieta, 2018]. Together with the United States, the TPP had a chance to be a game-changer in the region in some areas, including environment, labor law, and intellectual property protection. Nevertheless, even in the CPTPP format, the partnership establishes new types of standards in free trade agreements.
Equally important is the fact that Japan was able to formulate its response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Shinzo Abe presented the principles of the Japanese vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” [MFA of Japan, 2016]. The key objectives are as follows: first, to maintain the rule of law, including freedom of navigation; second, promoting economic growth in the region by investing in “quality infrastructure”, for example, energy and information technology projects, as well as ports, railways, highways; third, support for peace and stability in the maritime security, the provision of humanitarian aid, and assistance in case of natural disasters [MFA of Japan, 2017]. At the same time, Japan clearly understands the exhaustibility of its financial resources and intends to compete with China by promising better projects and the development of local human capital. It is also important that Japan has agreed with the United States, Australia and India, and other states to jointly invest in infrastructure, creating an alternative for the BRI [U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, 2019; Pew Research, 2018].
Moreover, in November 2019, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, together with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, established the Blue Dot network project. Within the network, a mechanism for certification of infrastructure facilities, railways, highways, seaports, bridges, etc. will be developed in order to determine the degree of their functionality and attractiveness for subsequent investments. Certification by the Blue Dot Network will serve as a globally recognized symbol of market-driven, transparent and financially sustainable development projects [U.S. Department of State, 2020]. Obviously, it is an effort to create standards without China’s involvement, and these standards can diminish the investment attractiveness of Chinese infrastructure projects.
All these actions by Japan had a negative impact on its relations with China. However, Shinzo Abe made substantial efforts to normalize and maintain a balance in relations with Beijing. Abe’s actions were dictated by the three main reasons: first, China is Japan’s largest trading partner; second, Chinese tourists are an increasingly significant factor for Japan’s tourism industry; and third, China is a key factor in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. 2018 was a breakthrough year, as Abe used the 40th anniversary of the treaty of peace and friendship between Japan and China to improve relations. At first, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made a visit to Tokyo, and then Abe visited Beijing [MFA of Japan, 2018]. He was the first Japanese leader who visited China in eight years.
Making a short conclusion, it can be noted that Abe managed to significantly strengthen Japan’s role in the international arena. The country has initiated some important global and regional programs and strategies. The active steps of the Japanese political elite are associated not only with nationalist ambitions but also are dictated by objective factors. The role of the United States is declining, and China’s ambitions are growing, and Japan needs to find a new base for ensuring its own security. As for Shinzo Abe, grandson of a prime minister and son of a minister of foreign affairs, he played an important role in shaping Japan’s strategic interests in economics, politics, and other areas. Opened a new chapter in Japanese foreign policy, which necessitates to open up to the world, look for friends, and maintain a balance between the United States and China. From where he left his successors to need to pursue these goals in their agenda for a foreign policy of Japan.
BBC (2020). Shinzo Abe: Japan’s PM resigns for health reasons. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53943758. Accessed on 13.09.2020.
Buchan, Patrick and Benjamin Rimland (2020). Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Retrieved from https://www.csis.org/analysis/defining-diamond-past-present-and-future-quadrilateral-security-dialogue. Accessed on 11.09.2020.
Global Times (2014). Japan’s Cabinet seeks to drop the ban on collective self-defense amid protests. Retrieved from http://www.globaltimes.cn/daily-specials/japan-abe-collective-self-defense-2014/index.html. Accessed on 10.09.2020.
MFA of Japan (2016). Address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Opening Session of the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Retrieved from https://www.mofa.go.jp/afr/af2/page4e_000496.html. Accessed on 11.09.2020.
MFA of Japan (2017). Priority policy for development cooperation. Retrieved from https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000259285.pdf. Accessed on 11.09.2020.
MFA of Japan (2018c). Prime Minister Abe Visits China. Retrieved from https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/c_m1/cn/page3e_000958.html. Accessed on 11.09.2020.
McCurry, Justin (2013). Japan’s Shinzo Abe angers neighbours and US by visiting war dead shrine. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/26/japan-shinzo-abe-tension-neighbours-shrine. Accessed on 10.09.2020.
Obe, Mitsuru (2015). Japan Parliament Approves Overseas Military Expansion. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-parliament-approves-abe-security-bills-1442596867. Accessed on 13.09.2020.
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Pew Research (2016) How Asia-Pacific Publics See Each Other and Their National Leaders. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2015/09/02/how-asia-pacific-publics-see-each-other-and-their-national-leaders/. Accessed on 20.09.2020.
Pew Research (2018). Hostile Neighbors: China vs. Japan. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2016/09/13/hostile-neighbors-china-vs-japan/. Accessed on 24.09.2020.
Sherwood, Dave and Felipe Iturrieta (2018). Asia-Pacific nations sign sweeping trade deal without U.S. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-tpp/asia-pacific-nations-sign-sweeping-trade-deal-without-u-s-idUSKCN1GK0JM. Accessed on 13.09.2020.
U.S. Department of State (2020). Blue Dot Network. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/blue-dot-network/. Accessed on 11.09.2020.
US Embassy in Indonesia (2019). U.S., Australia, Japan Delegation Travels to Indonesia to Explore Investment Opportunities. Retrieved from https://id.usembassy.gov/u-s-australia-japan-delegation-travels-to-indonesia-to-explore-investment-opportunities/. Accessed on 20.09.2020.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Asset Ordabayev is a junior research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in International Relations from the KarSU (Karahanda) from 2012. In 2014, he earned his Masters degree in International Relations the Kazak National University (Almaty). From 2014 to 2017 he worked at the Institute of World Economy and Politics as a foreign policy expert. The main research interests are the geopolitical processes on the Eurasian continent within the framework of the development of transport infrastructure, as well as the ongoing proces