Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, leaves office a diminished figure with an unfulfilled legacy


Craig Mark, Kyoritsu Women’s University

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended weeks of speculation about the state of his health by announcing his surprise resignation today.

The 65-year-old Abe was finally forced to concede to the ulcerative colitis intestinal disease that had brought his first brief term in office to an end in 2007.

After being treated with a new course of medication, Abe made a remarkable political comeback in 2012. He regained the leadership of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and led it back into government, three years after it was knocked out of power.

Abe easily defeated the weak and disorganised opposition parties in the 2014 and 2017 elections, and in 2018 secured an unprecedented third three-year term as LDP president, with his supporters speculating he could lead for yet another.

Abe was re-elected as LDP president in a landslide victory in 2018.
Takehiko Suzuki/AP

Partial successes in the economy, defence

Abe kept up this political success based around his core economic policy, prominently marketed as “Abenomics”. This comprised the three “arrows” of record stimulus spending, quantitative easing (printing money to buy assets), and attempts at deregulation.

Abenomics was partially successful at restoring mild economic growth, but this started to wane after consumption tax hikes last October. The country then slipped into recession with the coronavirus pandemic.

In foreign policy, the nationalistic Abe reinterpreted Japan’s pacifist constitution, passing bills in the Diet in 2015 to allow collective self-defence with its US ally — despite a lack of public support and large student-led demonstrations.

Accompanied by a sharp increase in defence spending, Abe’s long-held desire to change the constitution to allow even more assertive use of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces was left unfulfilled. In 2019 Upper House elections, the LDP and its coalition partners lost the two-thirds majority required to allow any constitutional referendum.

Despite this setback, the lack of a strong challenger within the LDP — as well as the failure of the opposition parties to pose any credible threat — allowed Abe eventually to become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.

Deeper relations with regional states

Abe energetically pursued foreign affairs throughout his tenure, maintaining the key US alliance through presidents Barack Obama to Donald Trump.

He sought greater Japanese participation in regional security by promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, and in doing so, deepened Japan’s strategic relations with India, ASEAN and Australia.

Japan’s Self-Defence Force brought recovery equipment and personnel to help in Australia’s response to bushfires this year.

Abe managed largely stable relations with China, Japan’s largest trading partner, but territorial disputes with Beijing, as well as with Russia and South Korea, also went unresolved. Relations with South Korea, in particular, reached a low point over their wartime and colonial history.

Abe nevertheless built on his image as a senior world leader, culminating in hosting the G20 summit in Osaka last year.

Read more:
Shinzo Abe’s latest cabinet reshuffle could transform Japan

A bungled response to coronavirus

Abe’s erratic response to the coronavirus caused a sharp decline in his authority this year. A massive stimulus spending program sought to limit the damage to the economy, but the overall public response by Abe’s government lacked clear direction.

Regional leaders such as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike pushed early for a national state of emergency, but Abe only reluctantly declared one in April — and it only lasted around a month. Abe also delayed making a decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until foreign delegations announced they wouldn’t attend.

Abe’s leadership was damaged by the government’s initial missteps in its coronavirus response.
Masanori Genko/AP

While Japan has fared relatively well dealing with COVID-19, there have been other ill-considered responses by the government. These included the widely ridiculed “Abenomasks” and the “GoTo Travel” domestic tourism campaign, which entrenched the public’s impression Abe was failing to respond energetically enough to the crisis.

Persistent political scandals also continued to erode Abe’s legitimacy.

From mid-June, Abe held no press conferences for nearly 50 days, and made few public appearances until the commemorations around the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war in mid-August.

As his approval ratings dropped to their lowest levels since 2012, Abe made a series of hospital visits in recent weeks. This sparked media speculation over his health, which LDP officials vainly tried to downplay.

Read more:
How Shinzo Abe has fumbled Japan’s coronavirus response

Who will be the next prime minister?

Abe will stay on as caretaker until the LDP’s Diet members elect a new president sometime over the next two or three weeks. This person will then be confirmed as prime minister by a vote in the Diet.

Speculation about his successor was already building in anticipation of the end of his term in September 2021, but this has now been rushed forward.

Prime candidates include his main old rival, former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who enjoys the highest public approval ratings as an alternative leader. Fumio Kishida, the LDP policy council chief and former foreign minister, is widely considered to be favoured by Abe as his replacement.

Shigeru Ishiba is seen as a potential successor to Abe.

Another long-standing ally, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga may also be in contention, as could Defence Minister Taro Kono or Economic Revitalisation Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.

Whoever is chosen by the LDP is unlikely to greatly change the direction of Japan’s economic and foreign policy. The new leader will have the ongoing responsibility of dealing with the persistent “second wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to engineer a post-pandemic recovery, while still burdened with record public debt and an ageing population.

Japan’s next prime minister will also soon face the judgement of the electorate, as the next national election is due by October 2021. The end of this patrician era of conservative politics has dramatically brought Japanese politics into an suddenly uncertain future.

Read more:
Why the fall-out from postponing the Olympics may not be as bad as we think

The Conversation

Craig Mark, Professor, Faculty of International Studies, Kyoritsu Women’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Turnbull’s Tokyo visit draws Australia and Japan’s defence forces closer

File 20180118 158546 17murmm.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Turnbull government appears determined to intensify Australian involvement in the Asia-Pacific’s strategic rivalries.
EPA/Frank Robichon

Craig Mark, Kyoritsu Women’s University

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first overseas visit for 2018, to Japan, was highlighted by a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his national security council in which North Korea was consistently mentioned as the main danger.

However, the underlying implication of Turnbull’s visit for the now-annual security dialogue is the interest shared by Japan and Australia in countering the strategic rise of China. The defence ties that have been steadily intertwining over the past two decades between Japan and Australia are now likely to strengthen even further.

Security and the global environment

As part of his one-day tour, Turnbull visited a Japanese Self-Defence Force (SDF) base near Tokyo. There, he inspected American-supplied PAC-3 missile interceptors and four Australian-built Bushmaster armoured troop carriers purchased by Japan, with four more ordered.

The troop carrier purchase is Australia’s largest defence export. Its success could lead to more deals on defence industry co-operation, assisted by the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement.

Improved information-sharing on counter-terrorism was on the agenda. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which Australian and Japan still support, was also discussed with business representatives.

The summit was another upgrade to a long-running series of security agreements. There has been direct co-operation between Japanese and Australian forces since the 1990s, starting in UN peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and East Timor. There’s also the important precedent of a joint stabilisation force in Iraq from 2004 to 2006.

The Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Co-operation was signed in 2007, and an Information Security Agreement and the Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement came into force in 2013. A “special strategic partnership” came into effect in 2014, raising Japan’s status second only to the US in Australia’s bilateral defence relations.

The Trilateral Strategic Dialogue has also been conducted between Australia, Japan and the US since 2002. The latest leaders’ meeting between Turnbull, Abe and US President Donald Trump was held at the sidelines of the last year’s ASEAN summit.

The wider strategic environment

As the Australia-Japan defence relationship has deepened, there has been relatively small-scale SDF participation in previous Australian-US exercises, such as Talisman Sabre, and joint naval manoeuvres.

A significantly increased tempo and size of military exercises involving Japanese forces could now be expected in the Northern Territory’s training areas, where rotating units of the US military have been based since 2011.

A joint statement released after Abe and Turnbull’s meeting confirmed that a Status of Forces Agreement is being negotiated to allow Australian forces to begin training at Japanese bases. This would be the first such agreement for Japan with a country other than the US.

If concluded, this agreement would be the prelude of a significant shift in Australia’s strategic doctrine. It would prepare Australian forces to train – and potentially conduct military operations – alongside Japanese and US forces in northeast Asia for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Turnbull’s visit also suits Abe’s agenda for changing Japan’s Constitution by the end of the year to respond to the North Korean missile threat, and strategic rivalry with China (and, to a lesser extent, with Russia).

The Abe government plans to have Japan’s Self-Defence Forces formally cited in Article 9 of the Constitution. Critics fear this move will be a pretext to greater overseas deployment in joint operations with friendly countries.

Controversial security bills passed in 2015 allow the SDF to participate in collective self-defence. This can include mutual logistics support between Australian and Japanese forces, such as transport of ammunition and supplies. Abe’s cabinet is already exploring the purchase of cruise missiles from the US, and the deployment of an “Aegis Ashore” anti-ballistic missile system.

Abe’s ruling coalition still controls a comfortable two-thirds majority in parliament after the lower house election last October. Backing for constitutional change is also likely to also come from the new opposition Party of Hope, led by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike – a defence minister in Abe’s first administration.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, and the Japanese Communist Party, are determined to halt any change to Article 9. They are backed by a consistent majority of public opinion.

While the Australia-Japan security relationship does not quite yet reach the level of an alliance, which would require military assistance to each other if attacked, it has nevertheless moved another step closer.

The Turnbull government shares the mutual US and Japanese opposition to China’s island-building and territorial claims in the South China Sea. Australia also effectively backs Japan’s possession of the disputed Senkaku Islands, while diplomatically claiming not to take any sides in these disputes.

Turnbull’s visit comes soon after reports that China sent a nuclear-powered attack submarine on patrol in Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. Commentators are already warning Australia’s closer defence ties with Japan will worsen relations with China, particularly in light of the recent disputes over alleged Chinese political influence in Australia, and criticism of China’s aid program in the Pacific.

The ConversationTurnbull’s visit was therefore a clear signal that the bilateral relationship between Australia and Japan is increasingly important in the strategic rivalry of the Asia-Pacific. The Turnbull government appears determined to intensify Australian involvement in it.

Craig Mark, Professor, Faculty of International Studies, Kyoritsu Women’s University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.