Shinzo Abe Got Many Things Right. Will His Vision For Asia Find A Worthy Successor?
Shinzo Abe, erstwhile prime minister of Japan who has stepped down due to illness.
"Even though there is a year to go in my tenure and there are challenges yet to be met, I have decided to stand down as prime minister…I don’t want to make mistakes in important political decisions as I undergo medical treatment,” Shinzo Abe, while announcing the decision to step down as prime minister of Japan on August 28, 2020.
Japan’s longest-serving leader has announced his resignation as premier of the world’s third-largest economy. Much of the coverage has centered on the announcement and the quintessentially Japanese way of apologizing about what remained unfinished business—a delightful contrast to verbal calisthenics that are the norm amongst political leaders.
Abe is the grandson of a prime minister and the son of a former foreign minister. Since taking over in 2012 as the sixth prime minister of Japan in five years, Abe has overseen Japan’s recovery from a devastating combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. He somewhat restored economic health to a weary nation through his core economic policy of 'Abenomics', and managed to win diplomatic points with a mercurial American president. In a country thus far accustomed to high turnover in the top job, Abe stitched together a center-right consensus and ensured political continuity during a difficult period. But what will probably define his legacy is his efforts to reposition Japan’s role in regional security and defense.
Even his harshest critics cannot deny that Abe has a strategic vision for Japan that he did not shy away from pursuing. Considered a steady friend to India and a strong proponent of The Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) doctrine, Abe’s leaves office with his strongest desire unfulfilled - to amend the constitution to allow for a more proactive use of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. However, Abe’s vision for Asia and Japan’s position in the regional order provide important cues for India and the rest of Asia as it prepares to engage with Japan under a new leader.
When Abe first became prime minister in 2006, Japan did not have a Defence Ministry. In 2007, the Defence Agency (Boei-cho) was upgraded to a Defence Ministry (Boei-sho). Upon his return to the prime ministership in 2012, he undertook efforts that resulted in what many consider the most significant institutional reform in decades- the creation of the tripod of a National Security Council, a National Security Strategy, and the National Defense Program Guidelines that defined the architecture of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).
In 2015 he pushed through security legislation that permitted Japanese self-defense troops to engage in overseas missions alongside allied forces as part of the “collective self-defense” doctrine. This was put to test in UN peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, but had wider implications. In 2017, when his party won a landslide victory that gave the ruling coalition partners a two-thirds majority, he attempted but failed to push through a constitutional revision, with public opposition to such a change still high. The Abe era has been one of transformation and direction in Japan's security policy under Abe’s vision of Japan as a proactive stabilizer in the region.
These sweeping national security reforms were supplemented by important diplomatic initiatives. As Abe widened his initiatives he also gained respect and built ties the world over. Alliances, bilaterals, G7, G20-- Japan today undeniably leaves a mark in ways that was not the case a decade ago.
India has featured prominently in the vision for promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the Quad. This was kicked off with Abe’s 2007 address to the Indian parliament, where he opened with saying that “in history, Japan and India have attracted one another,” and ended with a call for partnership to form “a region to promote fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests.”
In his autobiography "Utsukushii Kuni-e" ("Towards a Beautiful Country"), Abe recounts his childhood memory of June 18, 1960, a transformative moment in Japanese history when Japan passed a new security pact under the leadership of his grandfather, former PM Nobosuke Kishi. Protesters surrounded the parliament building, and Kishi was trapped inside the prime minister's official residence. According to Abe's recollection, Kishi was drinking wine with Eisaku Sato, Kishi's younger brother who later became a prime minister himself, when he said, "I know I am not wrong. If I am going to be killed over this, so be it."
It would not be a stretch to note that as prime minister Abe pushed through reforms with similarly stoic resolve. While the 65-year old Abe may no longer be premier of Japan, the impact of his legacy is only just about to begin. The media are likely to stress that he failed to amend the constitution - a key item on his agenda. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter given all that he did manage to change. Mr. Abe is a true realpolitik leader. The reality of statecraft may have robbed him of that chance, but the true impact of his legacy will play out for many years to come.
Abe’s resignation does not mean an immediate general election; someone from within the Liberal Democrats will succeed him. As China becomes increasingly belligerent during a global pandemic that has crippled much of the world, a wrong fit for the job could have consequences for the next election in Japan as well as for its allies and neighbors in Asia. With all its flaws, The Free and Open Indo Pacific is today the only real alternative to China’s BRI, and is likely to define whoever replaces Abe.
An astute leader, the change Abe brought about in Japan's role as a security actor is remarkable. What part of his legacy his successor chooses to continue and how much of that is allowed to be followed through will have repercussions not only for Japan but for all the alliances that Abe built with a steady hand. Japan must choose well at this critical juncture.
(Richa Jayal is a senior researcher on India-Japan affairs, and an entrepreneur in linguistics. She has worked for Goldman Sachs, and is a graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Osaka University).