Japan navigates the legacy of Shinzo Abe’s Japanese foreign policy

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Author: Yoshihide Soeya, Keio University

As the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party’s pacifist faction, Kōchikai, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida claims that his disposition in foreign policy is essentially liberal. But in practice, Kishida appears to have inherited late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative agenda.

Abe has divided Japanese politics and society more than any other leader in recent history. He had an unwavering dedication to a conservative national agenda, including education reform and constitutional review. The division was made deeper by his shrewd use of political power to alienate his opponents. Abe’s conservative and nationalist character was also evident in his hardline stance on historical disputes and territorial issues with South Korea and China.

Abe’s commitment to national defense had complex roots and implications. The debate over the national defense agenda has taken on the tone of promoting self-help for self-help. They included doubling Japan’s defense budget to 2% of GDP, acquiring counterattack capabilities, and nuclear sharing. Of course, it is possible to retroactively rationalize this posture in a broader strategic context. But the arguments of the politicians themselves focused almost exclusively on the defense of Japan and rarely referred to the obligations arising from the US-Japan alliance.

The Japan-centric atmosphere of conservative politics has been heightened by Abe’s tragic assassination. Kishida must now navigate a narrow path in domestic politics. It is not an easy undertaking in such conflicting political and social circumstances.

Kishida’s decision to honor Abe with a state funeral was met with very mixed public feelings. According to surveys conducted by the Kyodo Press53.3% opposed the decision while 45.1% approved it. NikkeiPolls were only marginally more favorable with 47% against a state funeral and 43% in favour.

As for regional and global diplomacy, Japan’s choices were initially limited. There will be little discontinuity between Abe’s approach and Kishida’s, except for diplomacy with Russia and, potentially, relations with South Korea. As prime minister, Abe eventually steered his adversarial stance toward China toward a realistic policy of coexistence, which was an easier path for Kishida to follow. But unlike Abe, Kishida faces an entirely new global security environment after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine appears to be motivated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions and poses a real challenge to the liberal rules-based international order. China also appears inspired by its own imperialist impulse. This does not mean that China and Russia will engage in large-scale cooperation or share a global strategy. China is carefully considering the various implications of the war in Ukraine, including the international response.

Japan and other advanced democracies face a new strategic environment that requires cross-regional cooperation between countries in Europe and Asia-Pacific. Kishida expressed his position on these circumstances in June 2022 before attending the G7 summit in Germany. In addition to strengthening sanctions against Russia and assisting Ukraine, Kishida said “Japan is committed to working in cooperation with the G7 and NATO to actively make contributions that only Japan can make, including including outreach to other Asian nations”.

This outreach extended to leaders of Asia-Pacific Partners – Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea – attending the June 2022 NATO Partner Session. Prior to this session, Kishida hosted a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol.

The leaders condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and agreed that Asia-Pacific and European security concerns are inseparable from each other. The Asia-Pacific Four are a group of middle powers that need Japan’s attention: it could also be an indirect way to rebuild relations between Japan and South Korea.

The American presence is vital for Asian countries to face the Chinese challenge to the regional security order. At the same time, developing a long-term coexistence strategy is also imperative for China’s neighboring countries. The purpose of regional institutions and networks in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific is to serve this purpose.

Even the Quad – made up of Japan, Australia, India and the United States – has embraced this goal. The quadruple meetings between senior officials, foreign ministers and heads of state all emphasize an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific region and the centrality of ASEAN. This means that the Quad is not an alliance to contain China and this message is addressed not only to China, but more importantly, to other countries in the region.

The Quad was initially conceptualized by Shinzo Abe as an instrument to pursue an Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at countering China’s assertive diplomacy. From 2018, however, Abe himself changed his approach to China. In October 2018, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing and agreed that bilateral relations were now on track. Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also agreed that Japan and China will promote bilateral and regional economic cooperation. In 2019, Abe officially invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan as a state guest in the spring of 2020, a visit which has so far not been realized due to COVID-19.

It was a workable compromise between Abe’s somewhat anti-Chinese orientation and the harsh geographical reality that Japan faces. It is the positive legacy of Shinzo Abe’s Asian diplomacy that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida inherits and can choose to move forward.

Yoshihide Soeya is Professor Emeritus at Keio University.

A version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Quarterly Forum‘Japan’s Strategic Choices, Vol 14, No 3.

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