Abe the “Internationalist”?


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has now officially exorcised the demons that have haunted him since his stinging resignation as leader in 2007. The recent Upper House election results, coupled with Abe’s landslide victory last December, mark a turning point for the former leader to break through the so-called “twisted politics” that has divided Japan’s political scene since the tenure of former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Junichiro Koizumi nearly a decade ago.

Abe was able to secure this victory for a number of reasons. First, he has been able to renew hope amongst the Japanese electorate that his three arrows approach to economic reform will pull the country back into prosperity. Second, Abe has encouraged a sense of patriotism that has long been dismissed in a country that has refrained from openly expressing national pride since World War II. Third, he has restored faith in Japan’s bedrock partnership with the U.S. while investing time to develop stronger strategic ties with less mature partners. And finally, he has been able to contain – if not improve – descending ties with China over the East China Sea.

This is not to say it has all been smooth sailing. Abe should shoulder some blame for the increasingly toxic ties with South Korea after a series of fumbled comments and ill-advised photo ops. He also erred when expressing his personal views on historical issues from World War II. But for the most part, Abe has been able to defy his critics and maintain the necessary tap dance on bolstering a “strong Japan” while not raising new eyebrows outside of Seoul and Beijing.

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Frozen ties with China and South Korea provided Abe with the impetus to look beyond Northeast Asia at the prime ministerial level. Since his election last December, Abe has toured key states in ASEAN, made a landmark trip to Russia, renewed ties and bolstered nuclear cooperation in the Middle East and Turkey, and charmed Europe. The unusual amount of international travel is especially intriguing when comparing Abe 2.0 with his first tenure in which he expressed concern that overseas trips would be a burden due his stomach ailment.

Why has Abe committed to such an arduous amount of “tarmac-time”? On the security front, Abe has focused on wooing partners in the Indo-Pacific in order to complement a triangular approach – complemented by his outreach to the U.S. and renewed funding for Japan’s Self Defense Forces – to levy international pressure on China’s actions in the East and South China Seas. This has included stronger engagement and strategic cooperation with India, Australia and ASEAN as Abe tries to piece together his “democratic security diamond”.

However, while Abe’s security agenda is under the microscope, his economic foreign policy is equally intriguing. Obviously the highlight of his first seven months in this vein was Japan’s stated intention to join negotiations on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trading pact. Less discussed is Tokyo’s inclusion in the Beijing-focused Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Moreover, Abe has been making a point to expand Japan’s growing network of free trade agreements, highlighted by nascent negotiations with the European Union as well as the lucrative – but admittedly opaque – trilateral deal with China and Korea. Moreover, Abe has been globetrotting from Ankara to Warsaw with a focus on renewing Japan’s tainted nuclear brand at home in order to secure huge contract deals for Japanese industrial giants such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries overseas.

Will Abe continue to focus on building and re-establishing Japan’s international ties after his emphatic election win? All indications continue to point in that direction as he has already planned return trips to Southeast Asia and Europe as well as a first leg to South America. In fact, Abe’s diplomatic touch may need to continue indefinitely if Japan wishes to remain up to speed with South Korea, China and ASEAN. Regardless of his overseas itinerary, Abe will likely remain focused on pushing through tough economic structural reforms in Japan and remain pragmatic and opportunist on the foreign policy front.

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