Harvesting the fruits of Abe’s diplomacy

Asia Politics World

Author: Nobumasa Akiyama, Hitotsubashi University

On 20 November 2019, Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest serving prime minister. Abe has attempted to broaden the scope of Japan’s diplomacy by taking an active approach to foreign policy and national security. Under the Abe administration, Japan has sought to simultaneously act as a guardian of the liberal international order and as a loyal ally of the United States. Particularly in the face of US President Donald Trump’s growing inclination towards an ‘America First’ policy agenda, it seems that Abe has managed this task very well, while the result is so far mixed. Above all else is that the harvesting of the fruits of foreign policy is carried over into the future.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves after a bilateral meeting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in during the 8th trilateral leaders' meeting between China, South Korea and Japan in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China 24 December, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Zhao ).

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves after a bilateral meeting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in during the 8th trilateral leaders' meeting between China, South Korea and Japan in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China 24 December, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Zhao ).

US–Japan relations, the cornerstone of Abe’s diplomacy, appear to have remained relatively stable — underpinned by the good personal relationship between the two leaders. Bilateral trade negotiations concluded in September and an agreement was signed in October, averting an immediate crisis. The agreement improved access for US producers to Japanese agricultural markets and mutually reduced tariffs on industrial products. But this success may be temporary. Tariffs on Japanese automobiles and the sale of US automobiles in the Japanese market remain an outstanding issue. This will demand tough negotiations next year.

Trump has also asked Abe to raise Japan’s share of the costs of stationing US forces in Japan. Japan already bears 75 per cent of these costs and the government will be forced to find a way to manage these demands while also providing a satisfactory explanation to the public.

Japan–China relations have calmed following bouts of turbulence since Abe’s second inauguration and with Chinese President Xi Jinping scheduled to visit Japan in May 2020, bilateral relations seem to be improving. Yet, Japan’s legitimacy as a guardian of the liberal international order — to which human rights and democracy are key — is at risk of being questioned if it does not raise particular issues with China in relation to extremely worrisome situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Along with these considerations, as US–China trade disputes and strategic competition intensify, Japan will have to make difficult decisions as to how much it will align with US-led decoupling from China.

In the Middle East, Japan has called on Iran to refrain from leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but is cautious of further isolating the country in the international community. Abe even visited Iran in June, the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in 41 years. Abe’s government decided to dispatch MSFD ships to the Middle East for ‘research and investigation’, if not for patrol or security, another balancing act between the commitment to the alliance and its autonomous diplomacy toward the Middle East. It is difficult to say that Abe’s diplomacy with Iran has as of yet produced any tangible results but such efforts should not be evaluated after only a short period of time. The more pressing question is what stance Japan will take through 2020 given concerns that tensions may intensify.

As for North Korea, Japan called on the United States to stick to the goal of complete denuclearisation. Japan also called on the United States to be cautious about reducing US forces in Japan to ensure security throughout the process of denuclearisation. In the meantime, Abe has also expressed his readiness to meet North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un without any preconditions. It is unclear what the background for Abe’s remarks was, but the reaction from North Korea was reportedly not positive. With denuclearisation talks between the United States and North Korea stalled, a summit meeting between Japan and North Korea will not be beneficial for either country.

Japan remains concerned that any US–North Korea settlement will require Japan to contribute in providing incentives for North Korea in the form of economic assistance. In that case, the stagnation of the Japan–North Korea relationship, including the abduction issue, may become an obstacle to supporting the implementation of such a deal and for maintaining a cooperative stance with the United States.

Meanwhile, Japan–South Korea relations continued to worsen throughout 2019. The Japanese government were embarrassed by South Korea’s abandonment of the 2015 framework for compensation for ‘comfort women’, a radar lock incident on a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft by a South Korean naval vessel in Japan’s exclusive economic zone and the issue of conscripted labourers.

The Japanese government’s decision to exclude South Korea from the ‘whitelist’ of countries with fast-track trade status in the Japanese export-controls system provoked a greater South Korean response than Japan had expected, leading South Korea to suggest the end of the General Security of Military Information Agreement. A crisis was averted owing to pressure from the United States but it cannot be said that the tone of Japan–South Korea relations has improved.

The North Korea problem may become tense again in 2020 and further cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea will become even more important. Restoring Japan–South Korea relations will be an urgent issue for 2020. Both the Japanese and South Korean governments will have to make strategic decisions and carefully manage hardening domestic political public opinion.

Abe will soon be expected to harvest the fruits of diplomacy sown during his tenure. In 2020, Abe’s foreign policy will be based on cooperation with the United States. The challenge will be reconciling the contradictions of maintaining Japan’s autonomy and its role as a guardian of the liberal international order with contentions that may arise when cooperating with the United States. In this context, the establishment of Abe’s foreign policy legacy is entering a crucial stage.

Nobumasa Akiyama is Dean of the Graduate School of International and Public Policy and Professor at the Graduate School of Law, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo. He is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2019 in review and the year ahead.

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