Washington strongly supported Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national security and foreign policies. Now that Abe will be resigning before the end of his term next September, the U.S. should counsel the next prime minister to maintain Abe’s track record.
The announcement of Abe’s retirement came on Aug. 28, following two recent trips to the hospital. Abe suffers from ulcerative colitis—which forced him to resign from his previous term as prime minister in 2007—and there was renewed speculation that he would step down.
Compounding his health problems was widespread public disapproval over a series of political scandals and a weak government response to a resurgence of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, Abe had recently set the record for the longest serving Japanese prime minister, and it had been thought he would wait to depart until after he presided over the delayed Tokyo Olympics next year. He will continue to serve until a successor is elected next month.
Since returning as prime minister in 2012, Abe was a stalwart supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance. He enacted an impressive list of national security initiatives and oversaw an increase in the country’s defense budget. Under his stewardship, Japan developed new military capabilities and expanded its external security role.
Abe pushed against domestic inertia that had long constrained Tokyo from assuming a larger security role. He was responsible for overcoming Japan’s long-standing resistance to exercising collective self-defense, which had precluded Tokyo from defending U.S. military forces deployed to protect Japan.
Not all the defense decisions made under Abe’s watch were optimal. Japan’s recent abrupt decision to cancel the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system surprised U.S. officials. Tokyo had previously declared the system was critical to defend against the mounting North Korean nuclear missile threat, and its withdrawal raised concerns about the strength and reliability of U.S.-Japanese bilateral coordination.
And despite Abe’s many security accomplishments, Japan maintains several self-imposed constraints that hinder greater military contributions to constraining Chinese expansionist policies in the South China Sea and international peace-keeping operations.
Even when Japan implemented necessary defense reforms, it did so slowly, and did not keep pace with escalating regional threats.
Fortunately, all of Abe’s likely successors are seasoned politicians who will maintain Japan’s strong commitment to the U.S. alliance and its plans to augment defenses against the growing Chinese and North Korean threats. The U.S. should encourage the next prime minister to expand Japan’s regional and global security role as fully as Abe.
Abe’s successor will face challenges to maintaining Japan’s ambitious defense plans outlined in the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines. The COVID-19 crisis severely impacted Japan’s economy, and there will be growing advocacy to divert resources from the defense budget to rebuild the economy.
In terms of foreign policy, Abe championed policies that promoted freedom in the region. He was more forward leaning on the country’s relationship with Taiwan than any prime minister in recent memory.
Abe consistently pushed a strong policy against North Korea’s defiance of U.N. resolutions. He gained political prominence prior to becoming prime minister for pressing Pyongyang to release Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea.
He was concerned by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to reduce international sanctions to improve inter-Korean relations. He also disapproved of President Donald Trump’s cancellation of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises in the Korean Peninsula, meant to appease Chairman Kim Jong Un. He expressed concern about Trump’s apparent downplaying of North Korea human rights violations.
Japanese-South Korean relations, always strained due to Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula, deteriorated further due to South Korean perceptions of Abe’s nationalist and revisionist views, and his refusal to sufficiently disavow them. He was reluctant to atone for Tokyo’s brutal subjugation of Korea, and was a lightning rod for South Korean fears of a resurgent Japan.
Abe’s departure provides a symbolic opening for improving relations between Japan and South Korea. Seoul shares responsibility for the breakdown in relations. It should put aside politics and take the opportunity to improve the relationship.
Abe initiated economic policies to overcome Japan’s lethargic economy. His signature “Abenomics” program consisted of “three arrows” of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform. Japan initially achieved higher economic growth and stabilized its national debt, but Abe was unable to fully implement necessary economic reforms.
The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 undermined the progress Abe had been able to achieve and may tarnish his legacy.
Abe’s long tenure provided welcome stability in marked contrast to the previous frequent turnover of Japanese leaders. Abe’s six predecessors had each lasted approximately one year each.
The Japanese ship of state will continue on the same course. What it will need is a new captain with Abe’s willingness and ability to buck Japan’s deep-rooted pacifism and glacial decision-making process.
Abe’s successor will face a daunting challenge of economic doldrums, escalating military threats, and growing uncertainty about the continued viability of its U.S. ally. Japan is a crucially important diplomatic, economic, and security partner to the United States.
The U.S.-Japanese bilateral partnership and alliance are based on shared values, principles, and objectives. Washington must do all that it can to support Japan’s next captain as he assumes the tiller to maintain a steady course.