London – The global COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the prolonged period of political stability in Japan that started with the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the end of 2012.
Under Abe, Japan has played a key role as a counterweight to China’s growing global influence, particularly in Asia. Since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in 2016, Japan has also been a leading supporter of the rules-based order. Political uncertainty in Tokyo therefore has important implications beyond Japan.
The main opinion polls in Japan show a decline in support for Abe’s Cabinet over 2020. An unprecedented fourth term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party now looks unlikely for him. This partly reflects Abe fatigue — he is already Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. But his domestic policy agenda has also lost steam.
The pandemic has scuppered Abe's push to reform Japan’s Constitution. Abenomics, his signature economic reboot program and keystone of his appeal to voters, is also flagging. In 2020 Japan will experience its most brutal recession since the end of World War II. Economic ground lost in the 2020 downturn is unlikely to be regained until 2022 at the earliest.
A deteriorating external environment
Japan’s domestic political flux coincides with a deterioration in its external geopolitical environment. The political and economic strains unleashed by the pandemic have turbocharged friction between the United States and China, Japan’s most important security ally and biggest export market, respectively.
The U.S. is expanding its squeeze on China from tech to finance. Washington’s potential rescinding of Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law if China imposes its National Security Law on the territory augurs for further friction. China’s strategic opportunism continues to destabilize its periphery — witness Beijing’s increased territorial needling in the first half of 2020 in the East and South China Seas and recent tensions between China and India over contested territory.
Against this background, the durability of Japan’s recent international activism becomes more important, especially for smaller countries looking for a hedge against an unpalatable "U.S. or China" choice. That there is demand from these countries for Tokyo to remain engaged is clear — for example, Vietnam’s request in its capacity as 2020 ASEAN chair for an "ASEAN Plus Three" (ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea) meeting in mid-April this year to discuss measures to combat public health emergencies. The choice of ASEAN Plus Three rather than the ASEAN-China bilateral leaders’ meeting was telling.
China is seeking to position itself as a leader in global health issues in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and has even revived its Health Silk Road concept to this end. Southeast Asia, meanwhile, has significant public health care support needs. Abe’s proposal at April’s ASEAN Plus Three meeting to set up an emerging diseases and public health emergency center and emphasis on transparent information exchange also highlights the rising importance of health security in post-pandemic geopolitics. Having Japan in these and other discussions is thus a vital balancer for the region.
Institutional change and economic statecraft
Recent Japanese institutional change may boost policy resilience. The formation of the inter-agency National Security Council in 2013 was a much-needed advance in fostering policy coordination between Japan’s often fractious ministries and, hence, in policymaking efficiency. The addition of an economics unit, also inter-agency, to the NSC’s National Security Secretariat in April 2020 was designed to bolster institutional depth by bringing economic statecraft to the heart of national security strategy.
Japan was an early mover in identifying that the threat from China lies in its geoeconomic as well as hard security power. Beijing’s temporary stoppage of exports of rare earths to Japan in 2010 on the back of a bilateral territorial dispute was an important lesson for Tokyo on Japan’s vulnerability to Chinese economic coercion.
Newer trends such as the impact on Japan of U.S.-China technology rivalry, the risks to Japanese economic infrastructure from cyberattacks from China, North Korea and others, and even China’s plans for a digital currency will have reinforced concerns for the need for an institutional fusing of economic and security strategy in Tokyo.
Aspects of Japan’s recent economic diplomacy will also outlive the Abe administration. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), launched at the end of 2018, is a good example of this and has become a key tool for anchoring Japan’s economic and political influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
The mega deal commits the 11 participating countries to open their economies and to raise industrial standards. It also provides a framework for smaller countries to cooperate, playing to Japan’s skills at coalition-building and its strong bilateral ties with members. As overwhelmingly the largest economy in the bloc, Japan inevitably has a leading role in it. More countries may join, expanding Japan’s influence further.
Of course, institutions and frameworks are only as strong as the political will that sustains them. Nevertheless, if managing China is one of the biggest challenges for all Western democracies, Japan may be institutionally and conceptually better prepared than many of its rich-country peers. Much of this preparedness reflects Abe’s building of momentum behind Japan’s economic statecraft. Indeed, it is here where the longest-lasting legacy of his long prime ministership may ultimately be found and around which Japan’s ability to build a coalition of middle powers to balance the destabilizing impact of U.S.-China rivalry may revolve.
Robert Ward is Japan chair and director of geoeconomics, geopolitics and strategy at the the International Institute for Strategic Studies, carrying out independent research and writing extensively on strategic issues related to Japan, including its contemporary security and foreign policies.