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Shinzo Abe was an important world leader and leaves big shoes to fill

Shinzo Abe was an important world leader and leaves big shoes to fill
The sudden departure of Shinzo Abe from the post of Japan’s prime minister leaves behind a legacy of several strong starts, both at home and abroad, as well as a few downturns. Any successor will have their work cut out for them.

Prime Minister Abe’s sudden resignation was preceded by a host of rumors throughout August. The rumors swirling around Abe's health this week raised speculation that he was having a relapse of his health troubles after his first stint in power as PM from 2006-2007.

Strong start followed by slowdown

Some argued that the power brokers in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were finding a way to gracefully allow Abe to step down so a change in leadership would embody new energy within the LDP. This is critical as Abe and his cabinet have had declining favorability ratings as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread. Others argue that the stress of the past six months (and eight years) have taken a heavy toll on Abe and so he saw a rapid deterioration in his health.

What is clear is that he will have a mixed legacy. At the domestic level, there was initial success with Abenomics, Womenomics (Abe’s effort to increase female participation in the country’s economics in order to benefit the economy as a whole) and some structural reform but ultimately, he could not translate his political capital into the required structure reform necessary to transform Japan. The fiercest critics will argue he only gave lip service to Womenomics and that his economic policies served Japan's mega corporations and not ordinary citizens.

Maneuvering around superpowers

At the international level, Abe showed himself as a highly adept leader at dealing with difficult and powerful leaders like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. He quickly pivoted after Trump's rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to sign and deliver a series of consequential agreements with Western partners other than the US, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, and the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan. 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 the international arena. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index has deemed Japan “the leader of the liberal order in Asia.” The institute has highlighted that Japan has consistently punched above its weight in terms of its diplomatic influence under PM Abe, despite the rapidly changing power balance in the region associated with China’s re-emergence as the centre of the Indo-Pacific economy.

Similarly, under Abe’s leadership, Japan’s developmental aid to Southeast Asia and the frequent visits of Abe to the region have accrued Japan with the highest degree of trust among regional and extra-regional states according to the State of Southeast Asia 2020 survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Despite a slight slip from 2019, Japan is still perceived as considerably more trustworthy than other regional players, as well as the US and the EU.

Relations with China: functional, but dysfunctional 

Coming into office in December 2012, Abe inherited a severely damaged Sino-Japanese relationship in the wake of the Democratic Party of Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands. Surprisingly, Abe resuscitated the relation to a functional (yet highly dysfunctional) relationship culminating in the now postponed state visit by President Xi Jinping in late March 2020.

Abe’s diplomatic efforts were set to result in the so-called 5th political document, a document that was meant to frame the tone and nature of bilateral relations for the next decade. 

Whereas Sino-Japanese relations have nearly returned to their post-normalization character of separating politics and economics, Japan-South Korean relations have unnecessarily spiralled in a negative direction since the election of President Moon Jae-in in 2017.

With South Korea, the worst since WW2

PM Abe initially had frosty relations with then-President Park Geun-hye, however the two conservative leaders were able to put their differences aside to sign the December 2015 Comfort Women agreement. With the election of President Moon, bilateral relations quickly deteriorated. The Moon administration effectively killed the agreement by shutting down a Japanese-funded foundation that was supposed to support the former ‘comfort women.’ It is also threatening to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) intelligence-sharing agreement, and the South Korean Supreme Court has ruled that Nissan Steel must compensate wartime forced labor. In sum, today’s relations are at a post-WWII low, and both politicians and the public in both countries view each other at record-low levels.

A change in the tone and character of bilateral relations, while important for both countries, is not a priority for political leaders or their publics as the popular mischaracterizations of both countries have calcified. 

Swaying Russia: a work in progress 

With regards to Russo-Japan relations, Abe assiduously strived to forge a more mutually beneficial relationship with Russia and President Putin. The dedication was not just about returning what the Japanese call the Northern Territories to Japan or signing a peace treaty. In fact, Japan views Russia as a critical partner in the future to counterbalance China's influence in the region and as a strong partner in developing a more peaceful, prosperous and stable Northeast Asia. 

Any new PM will have the same broader strategic priorities vis-à-vis Russia.

Compensating for Trump’s antics

Without question, Abe’s biggest challenge as PM has been stabilizing relations with the US under President Donald Trump. Without deep consideration or dialogue with Japan, Trump withdrew from the TPP, slapped tariffs on Japan, initiated an ill-considered trade war with China and cajoled Japan into signing a mini-trade deal in September 2019. This all occurred as Trump denigrated the value of alliances and demanded Japan and other alliance partners dramatically change their burden sharing agreement with the US.

Abe has responded astutely at several levels. First, he has strived to personalize the relationship at a leader level, refraining from critical comments about Trump or his administration. 

Second, Abe has increased the quality and quantity of Japanese interlocutors in Washington through regular and more frequent visits of Japanese Self Defence officials, politicians, scholars and think tank research and business leaders. This approach has strengthened institutional relations such that they cannot be easily fractured by an arbitrary tweet or misinformed pronouncement by Trump.

Third, Abe has invested heavily in multilateralism and the promotion of a rules-based order to secure markets for trade, and to forge a constellation of states that will be compelled to enforce that order.

Abe may not be done yet

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 PM 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, PM Abe may have an important role as a senior statesman, after he recovers from his illness, in guiding the new PM and political leaders to navigate the geopolitical uncertainty in a post-Abe world.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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