Author: Sheila A Smith, CFR
Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest serving prime minister on 20 November 2019. Staying atop a parliamentary democracy seems a herculean task these days, but it is especially hard in Japan where prime ministers have come and gone with alacrity. But more than time served, Abe will be remembered for what he did while in power: He has returned his party to centre stage, reasserted Japan’s standing on the world stage and reinforced the foundations of Japan’s strategy in a turbulent Asia.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been far more unified and successful at the polls under Abe after their return to power in 2012. In 2014 and again in 2017, the LDP under Abe sustained its electoral advantage in the Lower House and hung on, through its coalition with Komeito, to a two-thirds majority. Even the Upper House elections in 2016 and 2019 produced LDP wins. Abe has used this steady foundation to implement agricultural reform, legal steps needed for his reinterpretation of Article 9 and even to pass a much-criticised bilateral trade agreement with the Trump administration.
Yet, there were difficulties. Influence peddling scandals involving Abe’s friends and even his wife emerged and a more pervasive scepticism over his revisionist impulses permeated public reaction to his leadership. Abe’s continued demand for constitutional revision drew some backlash, even within his own party. The public seemed to like the pragmatic Abe, but were less enthusiastic about his ideological bent.
Where Abe seems to have made the biggest impact, however, is in foreign policy. From early on, Abe came out strong on foreign policy. While meeting with US President Barack Obama in February 2013, Abe committed Japan to participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and went on to become its strongest regional proponent. Long after the United States elected a new president who would abandon the idea, Abe went on to conclude the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP-11).
Abe will surely be remembered for his unorthodox courting of the irascible President Donald Trump. But despite Abe’s ability to establish and build a working relationship with Trump, this has not inoculated Japan from the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminium or from the threat of tariffs on autos and it is highly unlikely that Abe will be able to avoid Trump’s demands on Japan for an exorbitant increase in host nation support when negotiations begin next year.
Under Abe, Japan has moved towards investing in its own military, buying expensive new fighter jets and an expansive ballistic missile defence system. But when Washington comes calling with its new intermediate-range nuclear forces, Abe will face serious domestic resistance. Already, Okinawa’s government has warned Tokyo that it will not accept these missiles there. While the US–Japan alliance continues to be strongly supported in Japan, Abe’s relationship with Trump could also become a liability.
But Abe may surprise us yet. Perhaps most notable in the era of Trump has been his ability to negotiate Japan’s interests around the disruptive US President. Here, the conclusion of the CPTPP stands out, as does Abe’s ability to forge trade ties with Europe. And, just as the alliance with the United States seemed to be a suffocating embrace, Abe has demonstrated his ability to bring all of the strands of Japanese influence to bear on building a network of interests in the Indo-Pacific including Australia, India and ASEAN nations.
Japan faces some difficult decisions ahead and even Abe could not stem all of its sources of disquiet. His dedicated summitry with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin did not bring the breakthrough that Abe wanted and while Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping have managed to thaw their relations, China remains at the top of Japan’s list of security challenges.
Abe’s hard-won compromises on outstanding war legacy claims with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye did not last once President Moon Jae-in came into power in Seoul and today that relationship is spiralling downwards in a tit-for-tat of recriminating policy choices. Abe still has no direct route to Pyongyang as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continues to test short- and medium-range missiles and refuses to engage with the United States on a program of denuclearisation.
Abe has now served longer than those who are best known for navigating Japan through its difficult post-war years. Shigeru Yoshida, who served seven years over two stints to set the path for Japan’s post-war foreign policy; Eisaku Sato, Abe’s great-uncle who served seven and a half years presiding over the ‘income doubling’ era of Japanese economic growth of the 1960s; and, more recently, the five-year term of Junichiro Koizumi, who resurrected the LDP from its disastrously waning popularity in the 1990s.
What Abe has done with his eight years in power will not be taken lightly either. In the time that remains, he may need to make some hard choices for Japan’s relationship with the United States. He may be confronted with mixed signals and tempting compromises with Beijing. He could even find himself locked into a confrontation with South Korea and North Korea simultaneously.
Abe has until September 2021 to cement his vision of a forward-looking Japan and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will offer Abe the opportunity to project pride in Japan’s accomplishments and culture onto a global screen. Dressed up as Mario, Abe delighted the world with his demonstration of Japanese soft power. Convincing his own citizens that they must prepare for a world in which hard power has become a far more necessary tool for Japan may be a far more difficult hurdle.
Sheila A Smith is Senior Fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.