WASHINGTON – American scholars largely gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe credit for his victory Thursday in the presidential election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, acknowledging his stable stewardship over the past six years and the close relationships he has developed with U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders.
Nonetheless, they advise that Abe not risk expending the bulk of his political capital on his long-sought goal of amending the Constitution during what will be his last three years as prime minister and LDP president.
“Mr. Abe’s greatest contribution has been to provide stable leadership and competent management, two things lacking in the U.S. today and in Japan prior to 2012,” said Steven Vogel, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Others hail Abe for boosting Japan’s regional leadership through measures such as cooperating with 10 other countries in promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact even after the U.S. withdrew last year, and the Diet’s passage of divisive security legislation in 2015 that enables the Self-Defense Forces to exercise limited forms of collective self-defense.
“I give Mr. Abe great credit for achieving policy objectives in many areas simultaneously, including dramatic reform of Japan’s security institutions and posture, a modest degree of economic growth, and leading Japan’s re-emergence on the world stage,” said Andrew Oros, a professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Maryland.
In efforts to promote the denuclearization of North Korea and counter China’s military buildup and regional assertiveness, the United States sees continued coordination with Japan under the leadership of Abe — a staunch advocate of the bilateral alliance — as crucial, according to Oros.
“Although there is some frustration in Japan over Mr. Trump’s unilateral moves related to North Korea, the United States will need Japan’s active support and contributions to achieve denuclearization of North Korea and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula — which is in Japan’s interests as well,” he said.
Oros was referring to Trump’s building of ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un despite the absence of progress in resolving the abduction issue, which involves Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I think that Mr. Abe’s re-election as president of the LDP makes that more likely,” he said. “Similarly the United States needs a strong U.S.-Japan alliance and a strong Japan to confront China’s most provocative actions in both the military and economic areas.”
Both Oros and Vogel were cautious, however, about Abe’s push to add a reference to the Self-Defense Forces in war-renouncing Article 9 as part of what would be Japan’s first amendment ever to the Constitution, arguing that the security laws now make it unnecessary for Japan to alter the article and that the public does not consider the SDF unconstitutional.
“In an ideal world, I think that Japan should revise the Constitution to reinforce the spirit of Article 9 while recognizing the Self-Defense Forces and the right to participate on collective security measures,” Vogel said.
“But this is not the right moment,” he said. “If the Abe government revises Article 9, this will be viewed both internally and abroad as a step toward military expansion, which would not promote Japan’s best interests or peace in the region more broadly.”
Without touching the two clauses of the article, Abe has proposed adding a third paragraph to recognize and legitimize the existence of the SDF. But the public is divided about backing such an amendment, and there is concern it could provoke South Korea and China, both of which suffered from Japan’s wartime militarism.
“Is it worth the cost compared to other items on his agenda? It’s not clear to me that it is,” Oros said, citing pressing issues such as the social security system’s struggle to cope with a rapidly graying population and ensuring that a consumption tax hike planned for October 2019 does not undercut growth and inflation.
As for Trump’s calls for a bilateral free trade agreement intended to cut the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, Vogel said Tokyo should not strike such a deal with the Trump administration, which he said “has violated its own principles of promoting a liberal trade regime.”
Tokyo has been reluctant to conclude a trade deal with Washington on Trump’s terms for fear that it would increase pressure on the politically sensitive agriculture sector to further open the market — a development that would deal a blow to the LDP in next year’s House of Councilors election.
Japan is reportedly considering expanding imports of defense equipment and energy from the United States as part of an effort to address the imbalance. Trade is likely to be a major issue when Abe meets Trump next week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
In a Twitter post Thursday, Trump said, “Congratulations to my good friend Prime Minister @AbeShinzo on his HUGE election victory in Japan. I’m looking forward to many more years of working together. See you in New York next week!”
Vogel advised that Abe “negotiate hard” with Trump to win exemptions from a controversial U.S. plan to impose global tariffs on car and auto parts imports, and that Japan “should not reward the current administration’s tactics with major concessions.”