Shinzo Abe: a legacy of his own
25 Nov 2019|

Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest serving prime minister on 20 November. Staying atop a parliamentary democracy seems a herculean task these days, but it is especially hard in Japan, where prime ministers have tended to come and go quickly. 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 in the world and reinforced the foundations of Japan’s strategy in a turbulent Asia.

The Liberal Democratic Party has been far more unified and successful at the polls under Abe after its return to power in 2012. In 2014 and again in 2017, the LDP 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, to take the legal steps needed for his reinterpretation of article 9 of the constitution, and to pass a much-criticised bilateral trade agreement with the United States.

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. 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 US elected a new president who would abandon the idea, Abe went on to conclude the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

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, Japan hasn’t been immune from the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminium or from the threat of tariffs on cars, and it’s highly unlikely that Abe will be able to avoid Trump’s demands on Japan for an exorbitant increase in payments to host US forces when negotiations begin next year.

Under Abe, Japan has moved towards investing in its own military by 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 won’t 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 US 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 that includes Australia, India and ASEAN nations.

Japan faces some difficult decisions ahead and not even Abe can stem all of its sources of disquiet. His dedicated summitry with Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t bring the breakthrough that Abe wanted, and while Abe and Chinese 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 Korean President Park Geun-hye didn’t last once President Moon Jae-in came into power in Seoul, and today that relationship is spiralling downward in a tit-for-tat cycle 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 US on a program of denuclearisation.

Abe has now served longer than prime ministers who are best known for navigating Japan through its difficult post-war years. Shigeru Yoshida served seven years over two stints to set the path for Japan’s post-war foreign policy; Eisaku Sato, Abe’s great-uncle, served seven and a half years and presided over the ‘income doubling’ era of Japanese economic growth of the 1960s; and, more recently, Junichiro Koizumi served a five-year term as PM and 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 US. He may be confronted with mixed signals and tempting compromises from Beijing. He could even find himself locked into simultaneous confrontations with South Korea and North Korea.

Abe has until September 2021 to cement his vision of a forward-looking Japan, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will offer him an opportunity to project pride in Japan’s accomplishments and culture onto a global screen. Dressed up as Mario at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics, 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 will be a necessary tool for Japan may be a far more difficult hurdle.