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Editorial: Learn the lessons from 7 years and 8 months of Japan PM Abe’s administration

  • September 3, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

For the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which became the longest in the history of constitutional politics in Japan, foreign diplomacy and national security policies were marquee issues alongside its economic policy.


It has been seven years and eight months since Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took the reins of government back from the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), launching the second Abe administration with the promise to “rebuild broken Japanese diplomacy.” But while the period may have seen the alliance between Japan and the U.S. strengthened, it also leaves a negative legacy.


When Abe became prime minister for the second time, Japan’s security environment was completely different from when he was first in office. China had become the world’s second biggest economy, and it was making major moves to expand its military and maritime presence. How to deal with a growing China became one of the Abe administration’s most important challenges.


To this end, Abe put away his conservative ideology. Looking at his diplomacy as a whole, we could characterize it as “realistic diplomacy” that prioritized “practical benefits.”


As for national security, the administration aimed to counter Chinese military buildup by strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance. The enactment of security legislation that would allow the limited exercise of collective self-defense, among other acts, likely had the greatest impact in reinforcing the bilateral alliance. At the time, diplomatic and security authorities were deeply invested in trying to assuage criticism from the U.S. that Japan was getting a free ride from the bilateral security agreement.


Even before he was elected, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly complained that the security arrangement was unfair. “If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III. We will go in and protect them with our lives and with our treasure,” he said. “But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. They can watch it on a Sony television.” It is a long-held view in the U.S.


Japanese diplomatic authorities felt that to retain American interest in the Asia-Pacific region and maintain deterrent power, Japan must shoulder more of the burden of the alliance to appeal to the U.S. The thinking dovetailed with Abe’s pet argument for “an equal Japan-U.S. relationship.”


But many sacrifices were made to enact the security legislation, and their adverse effects have not been resolved.


Through just a Cabinet decision, the Abe administration unilaterally adopted a new interpretation of collective self-defense under the Japanese Constitution that differed from the interpretation upheld by past administrations. The prescribed normality of the Constitution was tarnished.


The cornerstone of democracy that requires a broad range of voices to be heard for building a consensus was destroyed. Public opinion split in two over national security. The views of the ruling and opposition parties, and the public, are still divided.


The administration’s methods of not lending an ear to opposing or minority views, and forcibly pushing ahead with policies that place an emphasis on the U.S., has much in common with the issue of relocating a U.S. military base in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa to another site within the prefecture.


While the Japan-U.S. alliance may have been bolstered, security legislation and the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa, which comprise the framework of the alliance, have not been widely accepted by the public. The foundations of the alliance are weak.


Trump, who upholds an “America First” policy, does not view the value of the alliance from a strategic point of view, but in terms of monetary profit and loss. Even when the Abe administration dedicated itself to following the U.S., the Trump administration appeared poised to demand more. The truth of the reinforced alliance is shaky.


It can be said that there were both pros and cons in the Abe administration’s diplomacy toward the U.S.


Meanwhile, the administration faced many stalemates in diplomatic matters with neighboring countries.


In the name of “settling postwar Japanese diplomacy,” Abe tackled negotiating a peace treaty with Russia and solving the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea, but was unable to yield results in either effort.


Although Abe changed his negotiating tactic with Russia from demanding all four islands of the Northern Territories to two of the islands, the strategy failed to bear fruit. There was a limit to what could be accomplished based only on the personal relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Abe.


As for the abduction issue, Abe repeatedly said that his mission would not end until all abduction victims were able to hold their families in their arms. He bears an especially big responsibility for being unable to make any progress on this issue.

Japan-China relations are on the mend, but tensions due to China’s maritime advancement into the East China Sea and the South China Sea continue.


The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, put forth by the Abe administration, was conceived as a counterbalancing force against China through a bolstered collaboration with the U.S., Australia and India. But trying to strike a difficult balance between keeping China in check in terms of national security while placing emphasis on China in economic terms meant the strategy was half-baked and faded out.


Japan-South Korea relations have been stuck in a very bad state, and are difficult to fix because of issues such as those concerning former forced laborers from the Korean Peninsula.


The Abe administration’s diplomacy and national security policies must be investigated, and its lessons must be put to use. Simply following and conforming to the U.S. is insufficient.


The struggle for hegemony between the U.S. and China has been characterized as the “New Cold War.” As the U.S.’s hard-line stance toward China strengthens, what sort of diplomatic and security strategy will Japan, stuck in the middle, take? It is necessary to build policies through debate with a broad range.

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