Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest serving prime minister in history under Japan’s constitutional government, has made a definite impact on the international community, touting a diplomacy based on a “bird’s eye view” of the world. Certainly, after a series of short-lived prime ministers, Japan has made its “face” known to the world again for the first time in a long while.
Taking the political reigns once more, Abe mapped out a strategy based on deepening the U.S.-Japan alliance, which served as the centerpiece of Japan’s foreign diplomacy power. The strategy was necessary because of the pressing need to cope with a changing national security environment exemplified by issues such as the increasing military strength of China, the world’s second largest economic superpower, and North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles.
Nonaggressive Defense Policy Loses Substance
As the U.S. signals its intent to reduce overseas troop deployment and adopt a more inward facing stance, Abe’s strategy might also have aimed to maintain U.S. interest in its connection with East Asia. A bias toward the U.S. could be seen ironically as a “clinging diplomacy.”
Abe touted a policy of proactive pacifism, which was a significant departure from postwar national security policy. A series of decisions left the nation’s nonaggressive national defense policy without substance. The most extreme example is national security law. Exercise of collective self-defense was partially approved, and the range of activity of the Japan Self-Defense Force was expanded. The shift also paved the way for exporting defensive equipment.
The prime minister is proud that the “alliance that can mutually help each country has become stronger.” But is that true? At the request of American President Donald Trump, Japan has continued to purchase costly fighter aircraft and other defense equipment. Garrisoning the troops of United States Forces Japan is also becoming increasingly expensive. The cost for implementing this solid alliance has become excessive.
The relocation of the American military base Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko is being forcibly advanced, despite the opinions of locals in Okinawa, and the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement was revised without even proper consideration or discussion.
The deadlock in the plans to deploy Aegis Ashore, a land-based missile interception and counterattack system, is emblematic of this bias toward strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe spearheaded a decision to introduce the system from the U.S., but the implementation was not feasible. While it remains unclear if he regrets that decision, he has brought up the discussion of enemy base attack capabilities in the name of securing an alternative for the system.
It is vital that any changes in security policy be carefully considered, and public understanding must be sought. The next administration should examine and work to reduce the excessive focus on the U.S.
It is commendable that former U.S. President Barack Obama was the first president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the atomic bomb attack. However, regarding nuclear disarmament, as a country that never has been attacked with nuclear weapons during war, the U.S. has turned its back on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Unfinished Postwar Settlement
If the current administration remains in office, it hopes to make progress on several longstanding issues. Abe resolutely started work on what he termed “a total settlement of postwar diplomacy.”
There have been 27 meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the Northern Territories (Kuril Islands) dispute. However, in a rush to secure a good result, instead of demanding restoration of four islands, in the end, the terms were scaled back to two islands, which means the issue remains to be resolved. Negotiations are extremely difficult because of an amendment to Russia’s Constitution that prohibits the cession of Russian territory.
Abe made North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens the “administration’s most important issue,” and aimed to reach a solution during his administration, but there has been no progress. He called for a “dialogue without conditions” by relying on President Trump, who managed to hold discussions with Chairman Kim Jong Un, leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Abe was unable to get a meeting with Kim.
Relations with South Korea have fallen to their lowest point since the normalizing of diplomatic relations in 1965. An agreement was reached with President Park Geun-hye’s administration to resolve the comfort women issue, but President Moon Jae-in’s succeeding administration annulled it, and also added the issue of conscripted Korean wartime laborers. The antagonism has spilled over to trade and security relations.
Abe must surely have had plenty of time to sit down and work on neighborhood diplomacy. The onus of not producing good results and the impasse on issues rooted in history is a heavy burden. The next administration must examine the strengths and weaknesses it will inherit.
The U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which came into effect under Japanese leadership. As the U.S. and China vie for hegemony, they will take the lead in building an international order of cooperation with countries that profess to share democratic values and the rule of law. From now on, Japanese diplomacy must also take on such a role.