In late August 2020, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shocked the political world with the announcement of his resignation as Prime Minister of Japan. Officially, the reason is a recurrence of persistent illness to Abe, which also lead him to briefly step down as Prime Minister in 2007.
Announcing merely a few days after becoming the longest-serving Prime Minister of Japan, a country where political transition is reflective of a revolving door of prime ministers, and policymaking is largely left to the state bureaucracy, it was hailed as a profound achievement for the persona of Shinzo Abe himself, for his political party Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Japan.
There’s still uncertainty regarding what motivated Abe’s exit from the Japanese political scene. An ambitious statesman treasuring a novel approach toward security and defense policies of Japan, he recently clipped the purchase of the United States Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System citing the enormous cost of the defense shield.
Furthermore, The Times reported the number of allegations regarding favoritism and an acute absence of transparency by Abe’s LDP for some of their actions may lead to his resignation. Japan’s internal fractious political infighting may also play a pertinent role as Abe’s ideas were squaring up with other potential foes to his leadership within the party, who favor retaining the insular and pacifist approach toward international politics and Japanese society.
Dominating the chessboard of Japanese politics since almost a decade after becoming Prime Minister in 2012 for another term, Abe’s ascendancy in the Japanese politics came at the heels of triple shocks in 2011 to the Japanese international prestige and social stability: a massive earthquake, a devastating tsunami, and a near life-extinction nuclear meltdown.
Ascending as a leading figure in an otherwise factional-fraught Japanese political fray to a society coping with tragic triple shocks a year before, Abe’s leadership attempted to restore and project Japanese cultural prestige, international relevancy, and national strength to the world by injecting the mundane, bureaucratic and pacifist Japanese politics with a more robust, assertive, and novel set of ideas about national defense, economy, law and order, and ever-important international relations.
Since 2012, the continuity of political leadership provided by Abe’s vigorous and abled personality helped the country to assert itself in a changing geopolitical climate of Asia-Pacific by outlining new geostrategic constructs for the region to regulate the relationship with a rising and aggressive China, underscoring a new, balanced approach with Russia and North Korea on the disputed islands, supporting multilateralism by active participation in the global forums such as United Nations and G-20, and consolidating Japan’s relationship with western nations particularly European Union countries and the United States.
On the domestic front, Abe was challenged by significant gender gaps in participation in the economy and wider economic stagnation, a rapidly aging population, and reshaping discourse and policy about national defense. On top of these mounting challenges, the new coronavirus also disrupted Abe’s planning about economics and legislation. The jury is still out whether his economic craft, “Abenomics” as it is popularly known, resulted in the attainment of the goals it set out to achieve. But, whoever succeeds him, will have a legacy to retain as Abenomics may likely persist and shape the Japanese economic framework for the foreseeable future.
However, during his premiership, Abe’s most pressing and complicated set of challenges did not lie in the domestic politics of Japan but lie in Japanese international politics. Further discussion merits a brief background into the formation of the contemporary Japanese foreign relations and security policy. Emerging at the losing end of the great-power competition in World War-II, the Japanese were coercively compelled to offer grand concessions in shunning their imperial legacy of militarism and conquests and adopt a more conciliatory and peaceful approach to international affairs.
This formed the third iteration in the long tradition of Japanese strategic traditions as Japan abandoned its legacy of militaristic belligerence and adopted a pacifist strategic tradition as a post-war security identity of the country. This lead Japan to radically alter its constitutional framework by introducing article 9 which prohibits Japan from maintaining an organized military for national collective defense.
Moreover, the adoption of pacifist security tradition also lends to certain security guarantees to Japan from the triumphed allied western nations particularly the United States in protecting Japanese sovereignty by extending the United States security umbrella to the Asia-Pacific region. These guarantees and promises of adherence to pacifism formed the bedrock of the Japanese post-war security framework and regulate its foreign relations.
However, after the past decade in the 2010s, Japan was forced to reconcile with new realities namely the rising aggressiveness of China in the immediate Asia-Pacific and Indian Oceans, the fraying and wavering of US commitment to the region through diplomatic and military support, and a frightening increase in geostrategic competition among mid to high geopolitical powers in the immediate maritime neighborhood of Japan.
Elected to lead Japan in 2012, Abe recognizing these changing realities tried harder to change the political, constitutional, and security traditions within Japan as well as to convince western nations including the US to reinforce their commitment to the region more strongly than ever before.
While seeking western support, Abe also recognized the decline in the relative strength of commitment and power of western nations concerning the Indo-Pacific region, therefore he attempted to interject new synergy in Japan’s relationship with its neighbors by negotiating disputed islands with Russia, courting the US for re-engaging its support to the region, and cultivate new geostrategic constructs to forge resolute strategic thinking about the Indo-Pacific region.
Abe’s dynamism to the international affairs and domestic politics will continue to pulsate through the geopolitical practices of the international players in the Indo-Pacific region. However, his exit from Japan’s premiership cannot appear at a more treacherous time than the present moment in Japan as the country is increasingly caught between the rock and hard place with President Trump increasing pursuit of America-First policy while China assertively makes its moves in the region.
Domestically, Abe’s leadership provided a sense of continuity in command and policy, despite political setbacks in internal politics, Abe’s centralization of political authority lead the country to resolutely mark its presence in the global politics. It remains to be seen who will succeed Abe and how his successor would steer the country in these headwinds but the strategic legacy Abe left in Japanese political and security tradition will preserve and tenaciously shape Japanese political practices in the foreseeable future.