Argument

The Abe Era Ends, Cheering China, Concerning Washington

The United States hasn’t had to worry about Japan in nearly a decade. Now it might have to start.

People pass by as Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is displayed on a giant television screen during a press conference in Tokyo on Aug. 28.
People pass by as Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is displayed on a giant television screen during a press conference in Tokyo on Aug. 28. Carl Court/Getty Images

Perhaps the timing was coincidental, but in the very week that Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, he resigned. The cause was the same that prematurely ended his first premiership, in 2007: chronic ulcerative colitis. Despite slumping polls, a stubbornly sluggish economy, and a nagging scandal over the 2016 sale of land for a school in Osaka, Abe nonetheless towered over Japanese politics since returning to the top office in 2012, and from that position he remained a staunch ally of the United States for nearly a decade. Losing that partnership just as the U.S.-Chinese geopolitical competition heats up is a worrisome prospect for Washington. Who will succeed Abe, whether Japan will slip back into political paralysis or instability, and whether the next leader will have as energetic a foreign and defense policy as their predecessor are the key questions facing not only Japan, but also its allies and competitors.

After three consecutive terms as prime minister and nearly eight years atop Japanese politics, it is difficult to remember how moribund Japan seemed when he retook office in 2012. Abe’s first resignation in 2007 had led to five more one-year leaders, including a stint in which Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost power for the first time since 1955 (apart from a very brief period in the early 1990s). From the ashes of his failed first term as prime minister, Abe turned himself into the most consequential Japanese politician since the power brokers Kakuei Tanaka and Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abe is the son of a foreign minister and grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who went from being imprisoned as a Class A war criminal by the United States to prime minister from 1957 through 1960 and one of the architects of the LDP’s electoral dominance throughout the decades. Abe cemented his position after 2012 through a coherent policy platform of economic growth and foreign and security policy activism. Countering the image of the typical anodyne Japanese politician, Abe adopted U.S.-style sloganeering for his economic plans; once he returned to office, he introduced “Abenomics” with its famous “three arrows” of monetary expansion, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform.

While falling short of many of the goals of Abenomics, such as a 2 percent inflation target to end deflation, Abe nonetheless broke new ground by joining, and ultimately leading, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, reducing corporate taxes, deregulating key sectors such as electricity, increasing the number of foreign workers in Japan, and promoting greater numbers of women in the workforce (known as “womenomics”).

Abe’s economic policies, bold for a Japanese leader, were hammered first by two ill-considered consumption tax increases that took the wind out of the sails of any recovery and then by the global coronavirus pandemic. Corporate governance scandals, including at Toshiba and Renault-Nissan, the latter leading to the infamous arrest and subsequent escape from Japan of the businessman Carlos Ghosn, underscored the difficulty of reforming what was once referred to “Japan, Inc.” Yet, even with his failings, Abe had the only comprehensive economic reform plan in Japan, and he could return to the basics in the absence of any credible alternative.

If Abe’s economic policies seemed relatively tame by global standards, it was in foreign and security policy that he went further than any previous postwar leader. He gained notoriety for wanting to reform Japan’s constitution to get rid of the pacifist Article 9, which prohibited the country from standing up a traditional military, and for seeming to question some interpretations of Japan’s war guilt. Yet he also made the clearest apologies for Japan’s role in World War II, made an official visit to Pearl Harbor, and hosted U.S. Barack Obama at Hiroshima.

More concretely, he essentially shed Japan’s post-1945 shackles. He revised or scrapped laws preventing defense cooperation with allies, allowed Japanese companies to collaborate in defense production, created a National Security Council, and increased the defense budget each year. During his time in office, Japan laid plans for its first aircraft carriers since World War II and will soon have the world’s second-largest F-35 fleet, after the United States, along with a new amphibious force designed to protect its far-flung islands from the Chinese military.

Throughout Asia, Abe deepened Japan’s foreign relations, most notably with India, where he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have worked well together, and with Australia, but also with Southeast Asian nations. The background to all of Abe’s policies, of course, was the rise of China, which was Japan’s biggest economic partner but also the clearest threat to its national interests. In many ways, Abe’s message to other Asian nations was simple: Japan is the “un-China,” a nation you can trade with, one you can work with to uphold regional norms and rules, and one that won’t bully you.

It is perhaps another coincidence of Abe’s political career that he returned to power just as Xi Jinping took power in China. The two jousted for eight years as Beijing warily watched Tokyo expand its economic and foreign ties, notably through its own policy of overseas development assistance to match Xi’s more lauded Belt and Road Initiative. More recently, Abe started a post-pandemic fund to entice Japanese corporations to offshore their China-based operations, speeding up a limited decoupling that is reshaping the world’s trade ties with China.

Of particular concern to Beijing was Abe’s military modernization. Not only did Abe defend against constant Chinese incursion into waters around the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, he also deepened Japan’s security cooperation with Australia and India, and kept a quiet, if close, relationship with Taiwan. There will no doubt be sighs of relief in Beijing that Abe is stepping down, as well as hopes that his successor will have neither his energy nor vision for such an expansive Japanese role in the Indo-Pacific or the world.

At the core of Abe’s foreign policy was the alliance with the United States. He helped guide a successful revision of the guidelines to the U.S.-Japanese alliance, significantly deepening it, with the Obama administration. But Abe will be more remembered for eagerly embracing U.S. President Donald Trump, creating what appeared to be a uniquely close relationship. Despite being labeled a Japanese nationalist, Abe understood that cooperation with Washington remained vital to Japan’s own stability and prosperity. His approach to Trump was designed partly to counter China, partly to ensure that Washington would continue to help protect Japan from North Korea, and partly to negotiate an initial replacement trade agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Trump pulled the United States out of the deal that would lower bilateral tariffs.

In the press conference announcing his resignation, Abe lamented his inability to get Russia to return the disputed Kuril Islands it captured during World War II as well as secure the return of abductees from North Korea. He also noted his failure to revise the constitution. He might also have added the always-incomplete nature of economic reform, and Japan’s lagging behind in digital finance, 5G, and cybersecurity. Yet overall, there is little doubt that for nearly eight years, Abe was one of Asia’s most effective leaders and, overall, one of its most successful. In the final year of his premiership, Japan was spared the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, and, compared to when Abe returned to power in 2012, the country has a far higher international profile and is playing a larger role in Asia and abroad.

The great question for Japan, of course, is who succeeds Abe and what will they do with his policies? The LDP has a commanding majority in the national Diet and so will pick the next leader from hopefuls such as former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, current Defense Minister Taro Kono, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Whether any has the electoral attractiveness and policy vision of Abe will be tested in the coming weeks.

Abe was the most popular politician in Japan, even with his recent troubles, and no one commands the same level of authority. Both Beijing and Pyongyang will be rooting for the type of faceless leaders who preceded Abe, and especially one who will not have as close a relationship with the American president. The markets will worry that the next premier will back away from the reforms already enacted and will do nothing to increase Japan’s industrial competitiveness.

As for the Americans, they have become so used to governing stability in Japan that they may be in for a rude surprise. It’s been nearly a decade since Washington had to worry about whether a Japanese leader was fully committed to the alliance, could keep a stable parliamentary majority, and had clear plans for making Japan play a role in the world commensurate with its position as the third-largest economy. It may not be long before the Abe era is mourned by those at home and its allies abroad.

Michael Auslin is the Payson J. Treat distinguished research fellow in contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics. He co-hosts The Pacific Century podcast at Hoover.

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