There may be a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose reputation as a capable leader is on the line. Abe’s approach to combating the coronavirus has been viewed unfavorably compared to the responses by leaders in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and even Italy and the United States, where widespread testing, social distancing and lockdowns are underway.
As coronavirus cases in Japan mounted, early opposition fault-finding with Abe gave way to general excoriation of his leadership.
Abe’s critics — including Yoichi Masuzoe, the former health minister and Tokyo governor — have described his response as clumsy and politicized, while his administration has been accused of allowing medical professionals to run short on essential supplies and not moving faster to postpone the Olympics.
Some polls briefly showed domestic confidence in Abe slipping to 18-month lows.
But despite this torrent of criticism, a competing narrative has begun to form around Abe’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, as Japan appears to “flatten its curve” better than most countries. A country of nearly 127 million with the oldest population in the world, Japan had 65 deaths as of Wednesday — significantly fewer than in China, the United States, Italy, Iran, Spain, France and even the United Kingdom and South Korea.
To be sure, the situation remains in flux. Testing is limited. Abe’s expert panel continues to warn of a potentially “explosive” spread of infection, and every new death is a failure of the system.
But whether Japan’s situation has truly brightened, or Abe’s leadership is indeed to be commended, COVID-19 gives him and, just as significantly, his potential successors, an important opportunity to showcase their political mettle in a time of crisis.
With the crisis, the prime minister has a unique chance to weed out a strong candidate from the pack of aspiring successors nipping at his heels, thus putting to bed the perennial uncertainty regarding Japan’s political landscape post-Abe.
Health minister Katsunobu Kato has been touted as a possible successor to Abe. But Liberal Democratic Party insiders say Kato’s political fortunes may dim if the virus spreads.
How COVID-19 will impact other administration power brokers — such as Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s long-time chief Cabinet secretary, and Fumio Kishida, who heads the LDP’s Policy Research Council — also remains to be seen.
Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba has positioned himself as an alternative to Abe, and remains politically unscathed from the virus. But Ishiba may be overtaken in the succession race by others closer within the party establishment, such as Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Defense Minister Taro Kono or economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.
In foreign policy, COVID-19 has caused surprisingly little damage to bilateral relations with China. In fact, this important pillar of Abe’s foreign policy — a relative oasis in the tense geopolitics of Asia — has been reaffirmed in unexpected ways.
True, the virus has stirred feelings of animosity toward China, with scientists suggesting that the spread of the virus could have been checked if Beijing had not delayed its response to the outbreak for three weeks.
Japan’s tourism industry, which is heavily dependent on Chinese visitors, has been badly hit by travel curbs. Abe’s next meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, originally slated for this month, has been postponed.
But unlike U.S. President Donald Trump, Abe has refrained from blaming China for the virus to score cheap diplomatic points, or shift attention from public criticism of his domestic response.
Trump has called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” needlessly reminding regional observers of the nativist pathology informing his “America First” foreign policy. His tone is partly China’s doing, certainly.
China, for its part, has egged Trump on, trying to shift liability for COVID-19 to Washington. Even as Beijing advertises its recent containment efforts in Hubei province as a model for other countries, its foreign ministry has cracked down on American journalists while dallying in baseless conspiracy theories, accusing the U.S. military of planting the virus in Wuhan.
For China and Japan, the virus has had almost the opposite impact so far.
There have been instances of Japanese discrimination and conspiracy-mongering, to be sure. A candy store in the resort town of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, briefly put up a sign barring Chinese customers. A Hokkaido ramen eatery with similar signage drew controversy on social media. Rumors on Twitter that Chinese-made toilet and tissue paper would no longer be imported sparked panic buying of daily essentials.
But the tenor of the official relationship has been very different. In February, LDP Diet members donated a portion of their March salaries to China’s fight against COVID-19.
When China ran low on medical supplies, the Japanese government, NGOs and companies donated masks, gloves, protective suits, eye wear, thermometers and hand sanitizers. The Chinese foreign ministry vowed to reciprocate Japan’s “friendship and mutual trust.”
When the Diamond Princess was quarantined, China sent testing kits. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated a million masks to Japan. Controversial telecoms company Huawei also pitched in, donating masks to a university hospital in Nagoya that treated Chinese passengers on the Diamond Princess.
A Japanese flu drug used to treat COVID-19 in China has been extolled for its potential effectiveness.
As international media signal the death knell of global cooperation, ordinary Japanese and Chinese have taken to the internet — more often the province of racists and xenophobes — to praise this unexpected charity.
Japan’s capacity even during these uneasy times to maintain good relations with China, a country sometimes described as its “intimate rival,” reveals its strong potential to navigate the turbulent geopolitics of Asia.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Abe administration has a rare opportunity to play an even bigger role as an international consensus-builder.
Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and a nonresident fellow in Korean studies at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii. An earlier version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post.