Conflict and Leadership
Foreign Policy Legacy of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Under Abe, Japan positioned itself as one of the world leaders in the liberalisation of trade, investment and other sectors of the economy, which could not have been imagined ten to fifteen years ago, writes Anna Kireeva, Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and African Studies, MGIMO University.

On August 28, 2020, Shinzo Abe, the most long-standing Prime Minister in the entire post-war history of Japan, announced his resignation, quite unexpectedly. On September 16, the new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, was elected, who had served as Chief Cabinet Secretary during Abe’s term in power. During his long tenure as Prime Minister of Japan, Abe managed to formulate his own foreign policy strategy and take measures to implement it. In addition, the Abe administration was characterised by an unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister, his advisers and the administration. The high stability of power and great foreign policy activity made Abe one of the most recognisable and respected politicians in the international arena.

At the very beginning of his first term, Abe delivered a speech, “Japan is back”, which was to symbolise that Japan is still an influential player in the international arena and will never be a second-tier country. From previous administrations, Abe inherited, first of all, an unprecedented deterioration in relations with China due to the aggravation of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The Abe administration took a tough stance on this issue and from 2013-2014 began to link China’s behaviour in the East China and South China Seas and characterise it as an attempt to change the status quo by force.

For the first time in Japanese history, Abe established a National Security Council to centralise decision-making, and the administration adopted a National Security Strategy that outlined priorities in this area. The strategy of “active pacifism” was declared as an official priority, which meant increasing Japan’s contribution to ensure peace and security. Two key security threats specified in the Strategy and in the Blue Books of Diplomacy are the strengthening of the PRC’s military potential as part of its new policy of changing the status quo by force, and the DPRK’s nuclear missile programme. An important change was the adoption of legislation that changes the interpretation of the Constitution with respect to the right to collective self-defence and increased the possibilities of using Japan’s self-defence forces. It allowed Japan to get a little closer to transforming into a “normal country”, but the key restrictions on the use of military force remained unchanged. At the same time, the goal of changing the Constitution and amending it, with respect to the constitutionality of Japan’s right to have self-defence forces remained outside the reach of the Japanese prime minister. During Abe’s tenure, there was an increase in the defence budget and an update of defence doctrine, as well as the acquisition of new types of weapons.

During the first years, Shinzo Abe paid visits to all ASEAN countries and in 2014 spoke at the Shangri-La forum, at which he proposed the formation of a maritime order based on international law. At the same time, his visit to the Yasukuni shrine in 2013 and his overall adherence to a right-wing revisionist ideology led to complications in relations with China and the Republic of Korea, and also generated some concern in the Barack Obama administration in the United States. Nevertheless, Abe managed to improve relations with the American administration and establish himself as a consistent supporter of the American policy of reversing or rebalancing the APR. The Japanese administration also became an important partner in the trans-regional project of the United States-promoted Trans-Pacific Partnership, based on the WTO+ Free Trade Area agenda. Japan signed and ratified the agreement in 2016, although it was scrapped soon after Trump’s inauguration.

Abe saw one of his tasks in an attempt to formally recognise the outcome of the Second World War and turn the page of history, resolving all controversial issues. However, despite Abe’s political capital, significant efforts, and the de facto softening of the Japanese position on controversial issues, the Japanese prime minister failed to make significant headway towards concluding a peace treaty and resolving its territorial issue with Russia, a key goal in relations with Moscow from the point of view of Japanese politics. Nevertheless, the results of his Russian policy after 2016 can be called a comprehensive improvement of relations, which had been affected by the Ukrainian crisis. It resulted in the intensification of exchanges in the field of security, and the emergence of a large number of new investment projects in different economic spheres outside the traditional energy and automotive industries. Abe succeeded in formulating the strategic importance of maintaining a dialogue with Moscow and giving new dynamics to Russian-Japanese relations.

In addition, the 2015 agreement with the South Korean administration of Park Geun-hye, which was supposed to resolve the painful historical issue of so-called “comfort women” in bilateral relations, was actually curtailed by Moon Jae-in, who replaced her as the President of the Republic of Korea. Moreover, the rulings of the South Korean Supreme Court in October and November 2018 on the need to pay individual compensation to former workers who were forced to toil in factories during the colonial period, and further consideration of the possibility of forcibly seizing the property of Japanese companies in order to make these payments, dealt a major blow to relations between the two countries and led to the erosion of confidence between South Korea and Japan. The restrictive economic measures imposed by the Japanese government led to an even greater deterioration in relations, and a boycott of Japanese goods. Witnessing the South Korean policy, which the Japanese see as unconstructive, Tokyo has also been less and less willing to make any concessions. With great difficulty, after targeted pressure from the United States, the tripartite agreement on the exchange of intelligence (GSOMIA), signed in 2016, was preserved. With regard to the DPRK, Japan pursued a consistent policy of maximum pressure, toughening and maintaining sanctions due to the active development of North Korea’s nuclear missile programme in 2016-2017, and maintained the most pessimistic position regarding the prospects for the negotiation process in 2018-2019. In addition, the key issue in relations with the DPRK, due to the personal heritage of the Japanese prime minister, was the issue of Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea. In any case, Abe did not manage to normalise relations with the DPRK.

By contrast, the Abe administration managed to normalise relations with China in 2017-2018. The warming in Sino-Japanese relations on the Japanese side was determined by Tokyo’s interest in maintaining stable relations, the management of conflict interaction in the East China Sea, interest in expanding mutually beneficial economic cooperation, and hedging against risks associated with the economic policy of the Trump administration. The pragmatic normalisation of the dialogue at the highest level and the restoration of contacts with the PRC are one of the main legacies of Abe’s last years in power.

Perhaps the main legacy of the Japanese prime minister is the proclamation of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Kenya in 2016 at the summit of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development and the further conceptualisation of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The strategy began to act as a geographic and conceptual framework in which all Japanese policy began to develop in this vast macro- and trans-regional space; it has both foreign policy and economic components. Fostering an open and free order in the Indo-Pacific, expanding economic cooperation and increasing interconnectedness are declared as key policy goals. Unlike the current American strategy or the abandoned TPP, the Japanese strategy is not directly antagonistic to China, but Japan would not like to see China as the dominant power. During the time that Abe’s administration was in power in Japan, the country managed to expand cooperation with a number of states that share interests similar those of Tokyo, or at least some of them — India, Australia, the ASEAN countries, especially those involved in the conflict in the South China Sea, as well as the EU, primarily the UK and France. Thanks to the efforts of the Japanese Prime Minister, in 2017 the Quadripartite Dialogue of Japan, the USA, Australia and India (Quad) was restored. In addition to expanding political and security cooperation, Japan achieved the renegotiation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership of eleven countries without the participation of the United States and the Agreement on Economic Partnership with the EU in 2018. Japan’s purposeful policy in this area has shown it as one of the world leaders in the liberalisation of trade, investment and other sectors of the economy, which could not have been imagined ten to fifteen years ago.
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