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Japan Navigates Around Shinzo Abe’s Japanese Foreign Policy Legacy – Analysis

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By Yoshihide Soeya*

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

Abe divided Japanese politics and society more than any other leader in recent history. He had a steadfast devotion to a conservative domestic agenda, including education reform and constitutional revision. The division was made deeper by his astute use of political power to alienate his opponents. Abe’s conservative and nationalist character was also evident in his uncompromising stand on historical disputes and territorial problems with South Korea and China.

Abe’s commitment to national defence had complex roots and implications. Debate about the national defence agenda assumed the tone of advocating self-help for the sake of self-help. They included doubling Japan’s defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP, acquiring counter-attack capabilities and nuclear sharing. Of course, it is possible to retroactively rationalise this posturing in a broader strategic context. But arguments by the politicians themselves focused almost exclusively on the defence of Japan and rarely referred to obligations under the US–Japan alliance.

The Japan-centric atmosphere of conservative politics has been exacerbated by the tragic assassination of Abe. Kishida must now navigate a narrow path in domestic politics. This is not an easy endeavour in such divisive political and social circumstances.

Kishida’s decision to honour Abe with a state funeral was received with very mixed public feelings. According to polls conducted by the Kyodo Press, 53.3 per cent opposed the decision while 45.1 per cent approved. Nikkei’s polling was only slightly more favourable with 47 per cent against the state funeral and 43 per cent in favour.

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As for regional and global diplomacy, Japan’s choices were limited to begin with. There will be little discontinuity from Abe’s approach to Kishida’s, except for diplomacy with Russia and, potentially, relations with South Korea. As prime minister, Abe eventually steered his adversarial stance towards China into a realistic policy of coexistence, which has been an easier path for Kishida to follow. But unlike Abe, Kishida is confronted with an entirely new global security environment after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

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

Japan and other advanced democracies are faced with a new strategic environment that begs cross-regional cooperation between European and Asia Pacific nations. Kishida expressed his position on these circumstances in June 2022 prior to attending the G7 Summit in Germany. In addition to strengthening sanctions against Russia and assisting Ukraine, Kishida said that ‘Japan is determined to work in cooperation with the G7 and NATO to actively make contributions only Japan can make, including outreach to other Asian nations’.

This outreach extended to leaders of the Asia Pacific partners — Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea—participating in 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 towards Ukraine and agreed that the security concerns of the Asia Pacific and Europe were indivisible from one another. The Asia Pacific four is a group of middle powers that needs Japan’s closer attention: it could also be an indirect means to rebuild Japan–South Korea relations.

The US presence is vital for Asian countries to cope with the Chinese challenge to the regional security order. At the same time, contriving a long-term strategy of coexistence is also imperative for countries neighbouring China. The aim of regional institutions and networks in the Asia Pacific and the Indo-Pacific is to serve this purpose.

Even the Quad — comprising Japan, Australia, India and the United States — has taken on this purpose. Quad meetings between senior officials, foreign ministers and state leaders all stress an ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific region and the centrality of ASEAN. This signifies that the Quad is constrained from excluding China and this message is directed not only towards China, but more importantly, to other countries in the region.

The Quad was originally conceptualised by Shinzo Abe as an instrument to pursue an Indo-Pacific strategy that aimed to counter China’s assertive diplomacy. From 2018, however, Abe himself changed his approach towards China. In October 2018, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing and agreed that bilateral relations were now back on track. Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also agreed that Japan and China would promote economic cooperation bilaterally and regionally. In 2019, Abe formally invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan as a state guest in the spring of 2020, a visit that has so far been unrealised because of COVID-19.

This was a realistic compromise between Abe’s somewhat anti-China orientation and the hard geographical reality facing Japan. It is the positive legacy from Shinzo Abe’s Asia diplomacy that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida inherits and may choose to advance.

*About the author: Yoshihide Soeya is Professor Emeritus at Keio University.

Source: This article was published at East Asia Forum. A version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan’s strategic choices, Vol 14, No 3.

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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