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3 More Years of Abe: Japan’s Foreign Policy Future

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Tokyo Report

3 More Years of Abe: Japan’s Foreign Policy Future

A round-up of the foreign policy challenges facing Japan’s prime minister as he enters his final term.

3 More Years of Abe: Japan’s Foreign Policy Future
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doesn’t have any time to rest after his victory in his party’s leadership vote on Thursday. He will travel to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly next week and is also due to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, with North Korea and trade likely to dominate talks.

“The visit to New York will serve as a meaningful opportunity to confirm close coordination with the United States and other countries in dealing with common challenges both at the regional and global levels,” Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, said, via Kyodo News.

Abe – who was re-elected to a third three-year term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, extending his long tenure as prime minister – faces plenty of domestic challenges in the near future, including implementing social reforms to deal with Japan’s aging and declining population. But he also has to manage a range of international challenges.

Here is a roundup of Abe’s foreign policy outlook:

North Korea

Abe has long advocated a firm stance against North Korea, which test-fired ballistic missiles over northern Japan twice last year. Abe continues to call for international sanctions to stay in place pending concrete action toward denuclearization, but he has had to recalibrate his strategy in the face of fast-moving developments on the Korean Peninsula. Despite the flurry of diplomatic engagement this year, Japanese officials emphasize that the basic threat to Japanese territory remains unchanged.

In recent months, Abe has opened the door to face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but there are no indications that this is imminent. A diplomatic opening with North Korea is politically unpalatable to Abe without a resolution of the abduction issue (including a clear accounting of the fate of Japanese citizens spirited away by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s). He has signaled his desire to finally settle the abduction issue before he leaves office.

In the meantime, Japan has devoted resources and diplomatic efforts toward monitoring compliance with sanctions, specifically ship-to-ship transfers of resources that involve North Korean vessels at sea. Abe may press for more support from other countries in this task, along with effective international oversight of any denuclearization-related steps that North Korea may take.

United States

Despite Abe’s sustained efforts to cultivate a close personal relationship with Trump (they have had seven summit meetings and 26 telephone calls so far), the U.S. president has clashed with him over trade.

While Abe took issue with the steel and aluminum tariffs announced earlier this year, he has been more vocal in opposing the possibility of automotive import duties because they would represent a bigger hit to the Japan’s economy. Abe’ ministers have said such a step would plunge the global market into turmoil. Abe has taken exception to the Trump administration invoking a national security justification for such tariffs.

Abe favors multilateral trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which the United States withdrew early after Trump took office. The U.S. president prefers bilateral arrangements. Abe has so far resisted pressure from Trump to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement, but the president often dwells on the U.S. trade deficit with Japan and is likely to revisit the issue.

According to Japanese foreign ministry officials, Abe and Trump will discuss the North Korea developments and economic issues at their summit meeting in New York on September 26. The two leaders “will confirm that they will further expand trade and investment between Japan and the U.S., and realize economic development in free and open Indo-Pacific based on fair rules so as to benefit both countries,” the officials said. The meeting will come two days after talks between Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previewed the summit as follows:

In this meeting we can expect continued restraint from Abe, emphasizing the need for continued allied pressure on North Korea and proposing a cooperative – though less confrontational – approach to pressing China on trade reforms. Abe will try to placate Trump’s trade demands with purchases of U.S. energy and defense equipment, but if Trump publicly demonstrates impatience with Tokyo’s economic policy stiff-arm and threatens auto tariffs or such, then we could see a greater chill in U.S.-Japan relations than we have seen for over two decades.


Abe has worked to improve relations with China over the past year or so, culminating in a planned trip to Beijing in October. It would be the first such trip by a Japanese prime minister since 2011. The two sides are expected to announce some form of cooperation on infrastructure investment in Southeast Asia, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

The Abe government has navigated a delicate balance. Japan’s latest defense white paper reiterated that China’s rapid military modernization program and unilateral escalation of activities close to Japan were generating “strong security concerns.” Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force confirmed on Monday that one of its submarines had joined an anti-submarine warfare exercise in the South China Sea the previous week, prompting a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman to warn against “any acts that could damage peace and stability in the region.”

Some observers have speculated that the U.S.-China trade friction has drawn Tokyo and Beijing closer together. Despite their territorial dispute in the East China Sea, the two sides finally agreed to launch a maritime and aerial communication mechanism to avoid clashes when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Tokyo in May.


Abe was bullish about the prospects for improved relations with Russia at the start of 2018, arguing that Tokyo-Moscow ties had “the most potential of any bilateral relationship.” Despite Abe’s pursuit of joint economic projects, there has been little progress regarding the longstanding territorial dispute over islands seized by the Soviet Union in the closing stages of World War II.

As reported on these pages last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin used an appearance at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok to float the idea of signing a peace treaty with Japan “without preconditions” by the end of 2018. This seemed to catch Abe off guard, as Tokyo’s policy is to sort out the territorial dispute before finalizing the peace treaty. How the two sides proceed will be an issue to watch in coming months.


Finally, it is worth considering the implications of one of Abe’s key domestic priorities. Buoyed by his victory in the leadership race, Abe indicated he intended to push forward with his long-held goal of amending Japan’s constitution, which has remained unchanged since just after World War II. He plans to keep the existing Article 9 (which renounces war) but add a clause acknowledging the existence of the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

Kristi Govella, an assistant professor from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, suggested the proposal was designed to look nonthreatening, because it would require approval by two-thirds of the parliament and a simple majority of voters in a national referendum.

However, she added that the revision could still draw protest from countries in the region: “Seen in light of Japan’s other security reforms, any revision of Article 9 is likely to attract concern from neighboring countries. Such a change is unprecedented in Japan’s post-World War II history and begs the question of what other changes Japan plans to make in the future.”