In August this year, Japan’s Shinzo Abe announced his intention to resign the post of Prime Minister. Almost instantly, tributes poured in from around the globe for Japan’s longest serving Premiers. As one of Japan’s most consequential Prime Ministers since the end of World War II, Abe was celebrated for his unique brand of economics aimed at restoring Japan’s flagging economic fortunes, his control over Japan’s truculent bureaucracy and the stability his government provided in an era where Japanese Prime Ministers seemed to leave office almost as soon as they had arrived. Most importantly, many praised Abe for achieving a fundamental reset in Japan’s foreign and security policy that could potentially catapult the reluctantly realist nation to the position of a real global power. As Abe walks off the global stage, it helps to more closely investigate Japan’s strategic gains under Abe and ask the critical question: how real were they?
In the aftermath of Japan’s disastrous defeat in World War II, Japan’s foreign policy conformed to the Yoshida Doctrine, which focused Japan’s energies on economic development while leaving security and defence policy in the hands of the United States. Article 9 in Japan’s post-war constitution went so far as to renounce “war as a sovereign right of the nation,” which was accepted by Japan’s war-weary public. The Yoshida Doctrine served Japan well during the Cold War as it went from strength-to-strength economically while leaving the United States to carry out the bulk of the conflict with the Soviet Union. However, Japan’s charmed existence was threatened by the end of the Cold War. Since then, pressure from allies like the United States and external threats like the rise of a revisionist regime in China have forced Japan to rethink its place in the world and its commitment to pacifism.
Japan’s charmed existence was threatened by the end of the Cold War.
From the moment he took office in 2006, Shinzo Abe’s strategic doctrine has been to “end all doubts about his country’s status as a first-class nation.” Firmly in favour of ending Japan’s pacifist outlook, Shinzo Abe’s strategic legacy rests on three pillars: altering constitutional structures at home, building international security partnerships and, most importantly, rewiring Japan’s collective psyche.
When it came to domestic policy, prior to Abe’s tenure, the Japanese government held that while it did possess the right to individual and collective self-defence, its constitution forbade any exercise of the latter. Therefore, Japan might respond to direct aggression against itself but attacks on allies like the United States were beyond the pale. Although bound by precedent, Abe’s government argued that in an interconnected global security environment that included threats from weapons of mass destruction, no nation could defend itself alone and an attack on an ally amounted to an attack on Japan. In the face of much domestic opposition, Abe constructed a fragile coalition with the more dovish Komeito Party aimed at pushing through a reinterpretation of the constitution that allowed for collective self-defence.
Abe’s push to revise constitutional barriers, while significant, failed to achieve its ultimate goal: a wholesale revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
In a 2015 vote
, Japan’s Diet voted to allow collective defence in a move that was hailed as a major strategic breakthrough. The impact on strategic relations was immediate as the United States and Japan renegotiated their defence cooperation for the first time in two decades to allow an expanded Japanese role in logistics, naval operations and missile defence while also extending the geographical reach of the US-Japan Alliance. Abe’s push to revise constitutional barriers, while significant, failed to achieve its ultimate goal: a wholesale revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution. Unable to find votes in the Diet or support for a revision among the general public, Abe has been forced to simply reinterpret rather than revise a pacifist Constitution — a move that might stand in the way of Japan’s new strategic dawn. Even Abe’s move to reinterpret came with three specific caveats
about when Japanese forces could be used; these were largely forced on Abe by his more dovish coalition partners. Further, while Abe argued that the collective self-defence repeal would allow Japan to operate in regions like the Middle East, his coalition partners have proved unwilling
to extend the reach of collective self-defence beyond Japan’s immediate neighbourhood.
Abe also successfully institutionalised his strategic thinking by setting up Japan’s first National Security Council. The new NSC, headed by the Prime Minister, acts as the nerve centre for security and defence policy and attempts to centralise and streamline decision-making. This was quickly followed up by the creation of Japan’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2013. The NSS clearly articulated Abe’s signature foreign policy objectives: upgrading US-Japan military ties, building security partnerships with Australia and India, and countering China’s strategic rise. In line with these aims, Abe increased military spending
for every year he was in office despite Japan’s fiscal troubles. Japan’s new State Secrecy Law, introduced in 2013, raised the level of control over sensitive intelligence by imposing strict penalties on government bureaucrats, journalists and activists for sharing information deemed confidential by the government. Despite being deeply unpopular with the Japanese public, the
law came into force after Shinzo Abe argued that Japan’s repeated intelligence embarrassments in the 2000s had solidified its reputation as “spy heaven” and strict measures were needed if Japan’s allies were to trust its ability to handle classified information. Under Abe, Japan also did away with the longtime ban
on the export of arms and military technology in favour of allowing exports that contributed “to global peace and served Japan’s security interests.”
Japan’s first National Security Strategy in 2013 clearly articulated Abe’s signature foreign policy objectives: upgrading US-Japan military ties, building security partnerships with Australia and India, and countering China’s strategic rise.
Abroad, Abe made his mark through energetic diplomacy. His advocacy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” that promoted free trade, the rule of law and respect for sovereignty was enthusiastically echoed by the United States and India. An early proponent of the Quad security partnership with India, Australia and the United States, Abe wasted no time in building closer ties. With India
, Abe recognised India as a nuclear power and supported Japanese companies investing in India’s Northeast. With Australia
, he oversaw joint agreements aimed at the transfer of defence technology and closer defence co-operation while also concluding a free trade agreement in 2014. With the USA, Abe proved to be one of the few world leaders who handled Trump with dexterity and managed to avoid irritants like American demands for higher Japanese defence spending. Abe left no stone unturned with ASEAN either and visited all the states in the regional grouping by the end of his very first year in office. Since then, he has committed billions of dollars in aid to the region and tried to create a joint front to tackle China in the South China Sea.
Yet, the last plank of Abe’s grand strategy to transform Japan threatens to undo his administration’s many legacies. Abe and his political allies in Japan’s right wing have long chafed at the overbearing historical legacy of World War II, a conflict in which Japan stands accused of indulging in numerous war crimes. The collective memory of the horrors that Japan both suffered and inflicted on other nations like Korea and China has manifested in a strong reluctance among Japan’s public to support Abe’s vision of a more muscular and assertive Japan. To conservatives like Abe, Japan must let go of the nightmares of the past in order to reclaim its rightful place in the world order. Japan’s conservatives, led by Abe, have thus attempted to memorialise convicted WWII-era war criminals in the Yasukuni Shrine, have rewritten history textbooks to downplay Japanese atrocities in World War II and have publicly questioned Japan’s past apologies for its war crimes.
An early proponent of the Quad security partnership with India, Australia and the United States, Abe wasted no time in building closer ties.
This project is far from a harmless domestic political exercise. In Korea, a critical pillar of the US security alliance in the Pacific, the public has responded with fury to Japan’s attempts to rewrite history and the current breakdown in bilateral relations between both countries is intimately tied to differences over history. The trade war between both countries and Korea’s 2019 decision to withdraw from a critical intelligence pact with Japan as a result of this conflict have harmed the interests of both countries to the benefit of China and North Korea. China has even attempted to drive a wedge between Japan and Korea by offering to create a joint front with Korea against Japan on historical issues. Because of its influence on the US, Korea also has the potential to stop Abe’s strategic vision in its tracks. In the past, Korea has lobbied aggressively to restrict Japan’s expanding security role in the Pacific until it is convinced that Japan is truly contrite for its actions in World War II. Even the United States, generally more sedate when dealing with the region’s complicated history, has clashed with Japan
on history and even directly criticised Abe for visiting Yasukuni Shrine. While some may have hoped Abe’s departure would usher in the end of historical tensions, PM Suga followed Abe’s cue by sending a traditional offering to Yasukuni Shrine, a move that was instantly denounced by both Korea and China. With US diplomacy in the dispute proving ineffective thus far, questions loom large over the fate of an alliance.
As Abe departs office, he leaves much to be admired. At home, his vision of a more proactive Japan on the world stage has taken root among Japan’s dominant conservative parties and is likely to outlast his time in office. Abroad, the stability of his tenure and energetic diplomacy gave him the credibility that few Japanese leaders have enjoyed in recent times. Yet, his strident nationalism and historical revisionism have stretched already tense fault lines in the region to their limits. For now, the jury is still out on Abe’s strategic legacy.
Shashank Mattoo is a research intern at ORF.
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