Blog

Pouring One Out for Abe

Blog

Pouring One Out for Abe

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, announced last Friday that he will step down once a successor is chosen. Abe’s resignation was both surprising and expected. It was surprising because Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told Bloomberg the day before the announcement that Abe would “be all right” and would complete his term without issue. But it was expected because rumors over Abe’s health had dogged him since July, including reports about exhaustion, vomiting blood, and multiple hospital visits. As it turned out, Abe’s chief political nemesis during his two separate stints as Japan’s leader turned out not to be any domestic political opposition, or the pacifist constitution he had hoped to (and failed to) change, or even China’s increasing power in the region. Abe’s rival was his own body, which has failed him for a second time, leaving the leadership of Japan in question at an inopportune time.

Abe, whose first stint as Prime Minister in 2006 also came to a premature end due to the negative effects of his ulcerative colitis, leaves behind a legacy of stability and unfulfilled goals. Stability is nothing to look down on in Japan, where the premiership had become a revolving door until Abe’s triumphant return to power in 2012. And if Abe fell short of his political goals for Japan, it was not for lack of effort or ambition. Indeed, in his resignation announcement, Abe seemed pained by regret: by his inability to amend Japan’s constitution, by his failure to resolve an interminable territorial dispute with Russia, and by North Korea’s refusal to return abducted Japanese citizens to their “beautiful country.” Abe’s signature program, of course, was his economic program, dubbed “Abenomics.” Abe fired all three arrows of his plan – monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms – and like so much else during his leadership, Abenomics enjoyed success while falling well short of achieving Abe’s lofty goals.

The Japan that Abe leaves behind faces an uncertain geopolitical environment, to put it lightly. Abe’s foreign policy was, in essence, to double down on globalization. When the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe helped push it across the finish line. Long before the India-U.S. relationship began bearing the fruits of the Modi-Trump bromance, Abe was busy forging a tighter Japanese-Indian relationship, using a tight personal relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cement their strategic alignment. Abe refused to let the election of U.S. President Donald Trump destabilize the U.S.-Japan security relationship, again using the force of his personality to befriend Trump and to keep bilateral relations on an even keel. Abe can also claim credit for the emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (aka the Quad), the unimaginatively-named alliance between India, Japan, Australia, and the U.S., which has deepened considerably since Abe first began pushing for it during his first stint as Prime Minister in 2006.

Through it all, Abe refused to make China, Japan’s most important trading partner, an enemy. Indeed, before COVID-19 upended his plans, Abe was pushing for a “new era” in China-Japan relations. In this sense, Abe’s foreign policy record has been quintessentially Japanese. John Toland summed up the difference between Japan and the U.S. strategic thinking best when he wrote that “unlike Westerners, who tended to think in terms of black and white, the Japanese had vaguer distinctions, which in international relations often resulted in ‘politics’ and not ‘principles’ and seemed to Westerners to be conscienceless.” Toland, of course, was describing the lead up to World War II, but his observations are still apt today. Japan more than any other country except perhaps Australia has been at the forefront of a multilateral effort to block China’s regional ambitions: by pushing the CPTPP forward, by encouraging the formation of the Quad, even by offering a Japanese alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And yet, under Abe, Japan has worked just as hard if not to improve than to keep relations with China steady, and in large measure has succeeded.

How long Japan can continue this tight-rope act, especially as its chief security ally, the U.S., is taking a zero-sum approach to containing China’s growing ambitions and power, is unclear. In the meantime, Japan has both new and familiar challenges to overcome. In addition to being caught between Beijing and Washington, Japan is in the midst of a demographic transformation. Japan’s median age of 48.4 years makes Japan the oldest country in the world, and IMF projections suggest Japan’s population will shrink by the size of the entire population of Peru in the next forty years. Meanwhile, all of Japan’s usual problems remain. Japan’s energy self-efficiency ratio is roughly 10 percent, a notable decline from 2010 attributable in part to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. According to recent Japanese government statistics, Japan relied on fossil fuels for roughly 80 percent of its energy supply – 99 percent (not a typo) of which Japan is forced to import. Despite ambitious plans announced in 2010 to reduce dependency on food imports by boosting Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio to 50 percent by 2020, Japan has backslid, falling to a record low of 37 percent last year.

It is little wonder Japan, like Australia, has sought to keep the spirit of globalization alive even as the U.S. has sought to snuff it out. Japan needs globalization of some kind to survive. Japan became a formidable Pacific empire in the first half of the 20th century in order to secure access to the resources it required to maintain and grow an industrialized economy. This was globalization by conquest. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Tokyo had little choice but to participate in the U.S.-led global order, which provided the stable global trading environment Japan needed in order to rebuild its war-torn country. Of course, this period turned out to be a golden era for Japan, as it became the second largest economy in the world before being unseated by China in 2011. This was globalization by consent. The post-COVID-19 era does not look like it will feature globalization of any kind. The new buzz words are self-reliance, near-shoring (which Japan itself has led the way on), zero-sum competition, and geopolitics. How will Japan secure its place in the world during this new era that threatens the trade flows upon which Japan is so dependent?

Abe’s answer was clear: double-down on the Japan-U.S. relationship, strengthen Japan’s military capabilities, create multilateral institutions and alliances of like-minded countries, and continue to engage with China on a productive but firm basis. Abe pursued this course consistently and admirably, but will his successor(s)’s answer be as clear? And how far can Japan pursue this strategy if China and the U.S. seem determined to duke it out in the long-term for Pacific hegemony? It seems that Abe will not be the one faced with solving these difficult questions. Of course, it would be unwise to count Abe out entirely. Many thought his political career was finished in 2007, only for Abe to come roaring back in 2012 stronger than ever. Abe is just 65, and if he can get his health issues under control, and if Japan’s domestic politics revert back to squabbling and indecision, perhaps people will clamor for a return to stability once more. Abe never groomed an heir apparent, and you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Still, not ruling out an unlikely scenario is a far cry from expecting a third Abe resurrection. Far more likely, Abe’s political career is at its end and Japan’s political system will revert to its more typical topsy-turvy dynamic at the worst possible time. There are difficult choices and tough challenges for Japan ahead. In a February 2020 assessment of the Japanese economy, the IMF concluded that, though Japan was in a good overall position, “a longer-than-expected drag from overseas economies and heightened global uncertainty are the main risks” to Japan’s future. COVID-19 will lead to a “longer-than-expected drag from overseas economies.” Global uncertainty is at distressingly high levels and Abe’s sudden resignation only adds to it. Japan is looking into the eye of a perfect storm and just lost its captain. 2020 strikes again.