The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which is the longest-running in the history of Japan’s constitutionalism, created a “poster boy” for the country’s diplomacy.
But that did not produce matching results. Despite the plethora of slogans set forth by the administration, substance took a backseat to glib staging of personal ties between national leaders.
Whoever succeeds Abe will face a pressing need to chart the course of Japan with an eye toward a shifting state of affairs. We hope the next prime minister will lead sound diplomacy for preserving the postwar world order from the standpoint of a pacifist nation.
Abe has consistently created the impression, both at home and abroad, that Japan is staying close to the United States.
He had the national security legislation ramrodded through the Diet in 2015, thereby allowing Japan to lift part of its self-imposed ban on the right to exercise collective self-defense. It is believed he did so to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.
He went so far as to distort the interpretation of Japan’s Constitution in 2014, as a prelude to that move, to follow in the footsteps of the United States. The latter country, however, is now espousing an “America First” policy under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Abe and Trump attracted public attention for their “honeymoon” ties, but the fact is that Japan has been buying huge volumes of U.S.-made weapons and has been put at a disadvantage in trade talks with Washington.
The United States has decided to leave an international agreement for preventing global warming and has also withdrawn from a nuclear deal with Iran. Washington could therefore no longer be counted upon as a guardian of the international order.
Japan is facing the question of what it should set as its foundation in a world that some describe as “nonpolar.”
Abe pledged, in a policy speech he gave in 2013, immediately after he returned to power for a second stint as prime minister, to “develop a strategic diplomacy based on the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law.”
At a time when heavy-handed politics is spreading in the world with ethical considerations put on the back burner, it is a sensible option for Japan to deepen ties with other countries with which it shares universal values. Unfortunately, however, the diplomacy of the Abe administration did not come with matching action.
Abe repeatedly approached Russia’s president, who annexed territory of a neighboring nation, in a gesture of appeasement. He made every effort, on that front as well, to build personal ties with Vladimir Putin, but no headway has been made in the bilateral talks over the Northern Territories, islands off the coast of Hokkaido seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and claimed by Tokyo.
The two Koreas, on the contrary, remained estranged from Japan. The ties between Japan and South Korea are currently believed to be the worst since they normalized diplomatic relations in 1965.
The Abe administration’s policy toward North Korea made a sharp turn from that of “maximum pressure” to “unconditional dialogue.” There has been no progress on that front, either, including on the issue of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korean agents.
We are living in a time when China, on the rise, is vying with the United States for supremacy and matters of the economy are intertwined with security affairs. The time is ripe for assessing the merits and demerits of Abe’s diplomacy, which has stuck to Japan’s “postwar regime”–ironically, Abe’s initial nemesis word–of all-out preoccupation with the United States.
What will be needed in the world over the years to come is probably not so much the leadership ability of a specific major power as a reinforcement of a framework for maintaining stability among multiple nations. Japan should make an earnest effort to help form rules for that purpose.
Japan helped effectuate the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement in 2018 even after the United States seceded from talks for the pact. Japan rightly did so from the viewpoint of defending the principles of free trade.
The next goal for Japan will be to build a diplomacy that is about sticking to the ideals of peace, human rights and democracy while taking the initiative in multilateral cooperation.