In a parliamentary democracy, the political weather can change overnight. The sudden announcement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s resignation on Aug. 28 has rewritten political weather forecasts both in the ruling and opposition parties. A new power game has begun in Tokyo.
That said, the endgame of this political game is probably easier to predict than the 2020 U.S. presidential election. This time, Abe resigned out of his deep sense of responsibility. Eight years of his foreign policy has made Tokyo more influential, trusted and even respected than any other period in Japan’s post-World War II diplomatic history.
Why was he so successful in foreign policy? Was it just good luck? What made the difference? Who will succeed Abe as prime minister? And, ultimately, what will their foreign policy look like?
Abe’s resignation was a surprise this time, although it was not as abrupt as the previous one 13 years ago when he was prime minister during his first term. At the time, I was chief of staff to the spouse of the prime minister, assisting Akie Abe with various duties. She told me about his resignation only six hours before the official announcement.
This time, however, it was different. Virtually everyone knew that Abe visited Keio University Hospital on Aug. 24 for the second time in eight days. The time the prime minister had over the past week or so suggests that he had a little more time than in 2007 to prepare several scenarios relating to his resignation.
I first met Abe in 1983 in Baghdad as a diplomat, when I was an Arabic-Japanese interpreter and he was private secretary to his father, Shintaro, who was foreign minister at the time. My interpretation attempt was disastrous, and Abe was the only official in the delegation who was sympathetic to me after I became upset over my performance.
When I became administrative private secretary to the foreign minister in 1986, he was still in his father’s office and we became colleagues.
That is why I know that Abe has always tried his best to be responsible. No wonder, he explained the reason why he had decided to resign in the Aug. 28 news conference as follows:
“The most important thing in politics is to achieve results,” he told reporters. “Pain from my disease or medical treatment should not let me make a wrong political judgment. They shall not prevent me from achieving results. Now that I can no longer confidently serve the people’s trust in me, I should not be in the position of prime minister.”
What was Abe’s legacy?
Editorials of major newspapers have clearly been divided. Liberal papers such as the Asahi, the Mainichi and Tokyo Shimbun have generally criticized Abe’s handling of domestic politics, using headlines such as “Time to liquidate harmful Abe politics” and “A sin of distorting democracy.”
Conservative papers have been more nuanced in their approach. The Nikkei and the Yomiuri newspapers have focused on the coronavirus pandemic, asking the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to “avoid a political vacuum at a time of crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.” The pro-Abe Sankei Shimbun asserted that “the LDP must make Abe’s policies a launching pad” for the new prime minister.
Views on Abe’s foreign policy, however, are less ambivalent and the pros and cons seem to offset each other. In a nutshell, under his doctrine of a “panoramic global perspective diplomacy,” Abe dramatically improved relations with the United States, while such outstanding issues as Russia or North Korea remained unsolved.
Who succeeds Abe?
The LDP is to hold a “less-open” presidential election in which voting power is given to all the LDP parliamentarians and only three representatives from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Some LDP parliamentarians insist that the election must be open to more party members.
Either way, the election will be held on Sept. 14, a few days before the Diet holds an extraordinary session to elect the new prime minister.
The chief contenders are former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Suga was a dark horse, and with many LDP factions throwing their weight behind him, may end up as the last and only choice for the LDP in the role of a short-term relief pitcher, as there is no perfect successor in this perfect storm.
What will happen to Japan’s foreign policy?
Regardless of who comes out victorious, Japan’s foreign policy may not change its general course.
It is not because Shinzo Abe was politically powerful, or that any of his successors would be under his thumb. It’s because the foreign policy Abe pursued is one of the few realistic options available for Japan to cope with the strategic rise of China.
With its population shrinking and its economy stalling for decades, Japan must now endure and survive crises on several fronts in the age of a rising China and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reality is that Japan is in a troubled neighborhood. Beijing is continuing to flex its muscles and Moscow is digging in its heels under President Vladimir Putin. Washington, under the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, is not willing to cooperate with its democratic allies.
Abe’s foreign policy, therefore, will be the bottom line, if not a “launching pad,” whether we like it or not.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.