Shinzo Abe’s successor is likely to continue his foreign policies, which the prime minister’s supporters say have raised Japan’s global recognition even though many of its goals remain unachieved, pundits say.
But while Japan’s next leader is expected to uphold Abe’s positions, such as strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rise, he or she will likely see a slow start in forging personal ties with world leaders, they said.
Abe, who on Friday announced his plan to resign for health reasons, developed a close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump while playing golf in both Japan and Florida.
Since returning to power nearly eight years ago, Abe has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin 27 times in person.
“Continuity is the core of diplomacy. That has won the trust of other countries,” a senior diplomat at the Foreign Ministry said. “The relationships between leaders or between foreign ministers, from the periphery to the center, affect diplomatic negotiations.”
Political analyst Norio Toyoshima said Japan will likely have no choice but to maintain its current policies, given that the new Cabinet will only have a year to go.
The winner of the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election will serve out the rest of Abe’s term through September 2021, at which point another vote will be held to determine its leader, and hence prime minister, for the next three years.
“Whether Japan’s next prime minister can bond with a possibly new U.S. leader following the November presidential election as Mr. Abe has done with Trump is uncertain,” Toyoshima said.
Abe’s successor will inherit the same diplomatic challenges, ranging from China’s increasing maritime assertiveness in the region and disputes with South Korea over territorial and historical issues to negotiations with Washington on how to share the cost of hosting its troops in Japan.
Even under Abe’s long stint and despite his promises, the North Korea abduction issue saw no breakthrough and the negotiations with Russia over the disputed islands off Hokkaido also saw virtually no progress made despite his drummed-up expectations.
Abe’s and the LDP’s return to power in late 2012 put an end to Japan’s so-called revolving door leadership, which saw a new prime minister emerge nearly every year starting in 2006.
With a long-term administration in place, foreign ministry officials said Japan was better able to pursue and protect its national interests even in the face of such great powers as China, the United States and Russia.
They said the contentious passage of sensitive security legislation that allowed the Self-Defense Forces to play bigger roles abroad was made possible by the stability under Abe and helped Japan build a stronger relationship with the United States.
“Under Prime Minister Abe, the Japan-U.S. alliance has undoubtedly become stronger… we need to take over and build on his achievements,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters after Abe’s resignation announcement.
“He has established good ties with President Trump, President Putin and other global leaders. That is not just his individual asset but the country’s asset.”
Potential candidates for next prime minister include LDP policy head Fumio Kishida, who was foreign minister under Abe, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. They are highly likely to stick to Abe’s course on foreign policy.
But another possible contender, Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who has often been picked as the nation’s preferred leader in opinion polls, has been a critic of Abe, including on foreign policy.
“But even if Mr. Ishiba becomes premier, because of his relatively small number of supporters within the LDP, he would likely in the end need to depend on other party members, including those close to Abe’s ideas, when he forms a Cabinet and dictates foreign policy,” Toyoshima said.
In the last LDP leadership election in 2018, Ishiba, who agreed on the need to uphold the bilateral security alliance, questioned Abe’s “golf” diplomacy with Trump, saying, “Japan needs to stand up to the United States when it needs to. Japan should not accept what is not in its interest.”
As the abduction issue, Ishiba also cast doubt on Abe’s approach, saying it relies too much on the United States in trying to break the stalemate.
“Adding pressure alone does not solve everything,” Ishiba said at the time, calling instead for setting up liaison offices in both Tokyo and Pyongyang to build trust.