Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s abrupt resignation comes at a period of extreme geopolitical uncertainty in the region and globally.
In Northeast Asia, we have an expansionist China pressing its interests in the East China Sea and South China Sea. China is also proactively attempting to reshape the Indo-Pacific integration through its Belt and Road initiative and associated digital infrastructure, which is increasingly seen as enabling the government to spy on its citizens. On the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has been rapidly developing both conventional and non-conventional missile systems, and Japan-South Korea relations are ice-cold.
More importantly, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has openly questioned the value of alliances, eschewed multilateralism and escalated U.S.-China tensions to the point of destabilizing the rules-based international order and geopolitical balance that has brought stability, peace and prosperity to Japan and the region.
As prime minister, Abe has navigated these contradictory forces adeptly and has infused stability into bilateral relations with the United States and multilateralism through promoting consequential agreements, such as multilateral trade agreements in the Pacific (the CPTPP) and the Atlantic (the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement), as well as a key pact on technological connectivity and infrastructure with Europe. This is in addition to other material multilateral agreements such as the Australia-Japan-United States Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership.
Abe’s tenure as prime minister has been seen as a force of stability in an age of geopolitical instability. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, which deemed Japan as “the leader of the liberal order in Asia,” points out that Japan has consistently punched above its weight in terms of its diplomatic influence under Abe, despite the rapidly changing power balance in the region.
Similarly, Abe’s leadership, Japan’s developmental aid to Southeast Asia, and the frequent visits of Abe to the region has accrued Japan with the highest degree of trust among regional and extra-regional states, according to a survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank.
Influential geopolitical risk consulting firms such as the Eurasia Group assert that Abe’s strong personal relations with almost every world head of state, even some of the world’s most notoriously prickly, including Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu and, of course, Donald Trump have put Japan in a critical position of buttressing the international rules-based order.
Simply put, even as the liberal international order has come under assault from a unilateralist America, a revisionist China and a rise in populism around the globe, Japan, under Abe’s stewardship, proved to be a source of stability and balance.
His successor will be tasked with guiding Japan through these geopolitical challenges — but without Abe’s experience, vision and pragmatic track record. The geopolitical question for Japan is whether the above successes are related to Abe’s leadership, sustainable institutional changes that can continue without Abe, or both?
Post-Abe, Tokyo must deal with several critical issues, including maintaining a robust Japan-U.S. alliance, navigating the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry and North Korea’s destabilizing missile programs. The COVID-19 pandemic and economic disruption that has accompanied it will further aggravate all three areas.
The Japan-U.S. alliance has been the cornerstone of Japan’s security for six decades. Throughout that period, Japan’s role and scope of activities has expanded. It is no longer the passive nation that was once criticized for its “checkbook diplomacy,” but is now an active member in promoting peace and stability globally.
The Trump administration has tested that relationship like no other, demanding a dramatic increase in shouldering the cost of basing U.S. troops in Japan. As former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his book, “The Room Where it Happened,” Trump “thought allies were not paying enough and the U.S. troops stationed in countries like Japan and South Korea are there to defend the Asian countries, in which the United States had no particular interest.”
Depending on the outcome of the U.S. election in November, the new Japanese prime minister will be tasked with strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance at both a leadership level and an institutional level to preserve agency within the relationship, to ensure that burden-sharing demands are reasonable, and to move the relationship and the United States back to a position supporting multilateralism, international institutions and more orthodox approaches to American foreign policy.
The urgency of this task will be informed by the intensification of the rivalry between the United States and China. Here, Japan has numerous areas to be concerned about.
First, Abe’s successor will have to find a way to maintain its economic relationship with China as the United States continues its trade war and comprehensive pressure on Beijing. This will be difficult as the Trump administration tightens the screws on China, as Washington recently announced a set of visa and export restrictions targeting Chinese state-owned enterprises and their executives involved in building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The Trump administration has also launched formal sanctions on officials in Hong Kong, including its CEO, Carrie Lam. She and others deemed responsible for the violation of human rights in Hong Kong and other parts of China will not be allowed to travel to the United States and could have their assets confiscated in the U.S. if they have any.
If the Trump administration begins to demand Japan and allies adopt similar policies, a new prime minister will be faced with an exceedingly difficult choice of siding with its security guarantor and long-time partner or its key economic partner.
Second, technology is another arena of competition between the United States and China that places Japan in a precarious position. Japan’s biggest trading partner is China. As China continues to promote its Belt and Road initiative, Japanese businesses that have a large footprint in China may be prejudiced by U.S. sanctions, restrictions and efforts to hobble China’s efforts to develop its indigenous digital infrastructure.
Corporate Japan will have to negotiate this increasingly Byzantian technological competition between the U.S. and China while, at the same time, find ways to secure proprietary data, including not just intellectual property but also private information that may be accessible to the Chinese government.
Abe floated the “Data Free Flow with Trust” concept at the Osaka Group of 20 summit as an attempt to bridge the rapidly growing digital divide between the United States and China and this may be an area to revisit by a future prime minister.
Third, and equally challenging, is the question of how much Japan is willing to increase its own defense capabilities to support the U.S. in the region. Will a new prime minister increase the country’s defense budget so that it can enhance Japan’s maritime awareness capabilities? What about acquiring pre-emptive strike capabilities, or acquiring its own system to defend against incursions into Japanese waters or North Korean missiles?
These questions will become even more pronounced in the coming years as China continues to modernize its military and expand its naval assets.
Turning to the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang is determined to saturate and overpower Japan’s anti-missile defense capabilities and assumes that the U.S. would prioritize its own defense over Japan’s security if a conflict was to break out. The new prime minister will have to manage this reality, considering the prospects of North Korea denuclearizing and/or demilitarizing are near zero.
The Korean scenario could become more dire for Japan if the next U.S. administration continues with Trump’s policies towards the peninsula.
This list is obvious, not exhaustive. Russia continues to destabilize friends and allies of Japan through its disinformation campaigns and gray zone warfare, the post-COVID-19 regional economy will be deeply damaged by the pandemic, especially in the informal side of the economy, and the negative effects of climate change are mounting.
The new prime minister will be challenged on all fronts to ensure Japan does not just tread the geopolitical waters. This will take stable and sustained leadership, pragmatic centrism and a long-term commitment to preserving a rules-based international order through deep and extensive partnerships in and outside the region.
Here, Abe may have an important role as a senior statesman after he recovers from his illness in guiding his successor and political leaders to navigate the geopolitical uncertainty.
Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.