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Abe’s Legacy Lives on in Japan’s Foreign and Security Policies

On July 8, 2023, marked the first anniversary of the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Since then, Japanese foreign policy, with the exception of its policy toward Russia, has continued on the trajectory set by the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

While Abe doggedly pursued rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in hope of resolving the lingering dispute over the Kuril Islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 forced less conciliatory Japanese policy.

Staying uninvolved no longer possible
In his keynote address at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2022, Abe’s foreign minister and current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reflected on the changed geopolitical reality: “In light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, countries’ perceptions on security have drastically changed around the world…. I myself have a strong sense of urgency that Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.”

Also in 2022, Kishida became the first Japanese prime minister in history to attend a NATO summit, together with the Asia-Pacific partners known as the AP4. In Madrid, Kishida stressed that the security of Europe and that of the Indo-Pacific region could not be discussed separately.

This has since been repeated by Kishida and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi at numerous summits.

Reflecting on a changed world
Japan is facing a challenging security environment with China, North Korea and Russia in its immediate neighborhood. In December 2012, Shinzo Abe published the essay “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” where he warned about China’s aspirations in the South China Sea and expressed a need for a revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Abe’s administration formulated the first Japanese National Security Strategy (NSS) and established the National Security Council in 2013. The next step was the reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution and the introduction of national-security legislation in 2015, which allowed limited participation in collective security endeavors.

At that time, it was met by an opposition in the parliament and massive demonstrations. In hindsight, it was the foresight of Abe’s cabinet that sacrificed short-term popularity in abandoning the Yoshida Doctrine for long-term security goals.

Abe’s successor, Kishida, updated the Japanese NSS in December, along with two related documents. Originally, the government planned to update the NSS in 2020; however, because of Abe’s resignation as PM and the short-lived administration of Yoshihide Suga, the task fell to Kishida’s cabinet.

The new NSS including its goal to double military expenditure reflects on the new Japanese security reality: North Korea’s technological progress toward weapons of mass destruction, the unprecedented rise of China, and Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Under Kishida, Japan has become the most vocal supporter of Ukraine in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan, however, doesn’t stop with words. Following the example of other leaders in the Group of Seven, Kishida visited Ukraine’s war-torn capital, and Japan has provided unprecedented humanitarian assistance, loans and, because of its constitutional restrictions, non-lethal military equipment.

Abe had an eye for surrounding himself with talented policymakers. One of these prodigies, the current national security adviser, Takeo Akiba, formulated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) in 2016.

On the one hand, then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, and it was up to mainly Abe and Australia’s prime minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, to save it. On the other hand, Abe found in Trump an unlikely ally for the Quad revival and for his FOIP vision. In 2018, the US even renamed its Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command.

Despite his differences with Trump, US President Joe Biden’s administration has largely continued his predecessor’s policies on the Indo-Pacific region and the Quad, but with some differences in tone and emphasis.

The Biden administration has reaffirmed its commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and has elevated the Quad to a leader-level summit, where the four countries agreed to cooperate on issues such as Covid-19, climate change, technology and infrastructure.

The Biden administration has also sought to engage more multilaterally with its allies and partners in the region, such as through ASEAN-led mechanisms, the G7, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Kishida inherited FOIP, and this March, he symbolically announced his new plan for FOIP in India, where Abe gave his famous 2007 speech “Confluence of the Two Seas” in the Indian Parliament, presenting the Indo-Pacific region as one geo-strategic theater for the first time.

Much like the FOIP strategy, the Quad is also an idea that Kishida inherited. Following in Abe’s footsteps, Kishida has improved cooperation pursuant to the Japan-US alliance.

Abe cultivated long-term Japanese relations with Australia and India and established strategic partnerships with India in 2006 and with Australia in 2014. Kishida’s administration deepened security cooperation with Australia and the UK further, and signed the Reciprocal Access Agreements.

Japan plans to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet with the UK and Italy. Japan has also supported entry of the UK to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the TPP’s successor.

The UK officially applied for CPTPP membership on February 21, 2021. Accession negotiations were concluded on March 31 this year and the UK formally signed the agreement as first European country to join the pact on July 16.

Japan is also strengthening security cooperation with France and Germany.

There is also continuity from Abe to Kishida in enhancing cooperation with the European Union and NATO. The Covid-19 pandemic was a further game changer. Learning from the pandemic, Kishida’s government made economic security its priority. This emphasis is visible not only in cooperation with Quad but also with the EU, ASEAN, and other partners.

Closer NATO ties
Prior the Vilnius summit, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed in April Japan’s plan to open a diplomatic mission to NATO in Brussels. Prime Minister Kishida and his AP4 colleagues attended the second NATO summit in a row in Vilnius.

After adoption of the NSS, NATO accelerated negotiations with Japan on the Individually Tailored Partnership Program, which was signed at the Vilnius NATO summit for the period 2023-2026, increasing the areas of cooperation from nine to 16, reflecting the new security challenges.

Through the agreement with NATO, Japan hopes to strengthen its military capabilities in order to keep China at bay by expanding cooperation in areas such as cyber-defense and anti-disinformation measures.

For both NATO and Japan, an increased Russo-Chinese strategic alignment is a challenge. Deterrence has become the buzzword of the Kishida administration. China is Japan’s largest trading partner; therefore, even the theoretical possibility of a kinetic confrontation between the US and China, which would take place in its vicinity, creates a headache for Tokyo.

The only negative point before the Vilnius summit was when French President Emmanuel Macron voiced his opposition to the establishment of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. For the time being, the proposal is likely to be shelved. 

Japan, EU strengthen partnership

In recent years, the EU and a number of individual European nations have released new Indo-Pacific strategies or policies, reflecting increased worries about the influence of the region’s security environment on European economic and security interests. In sum, the Europeans have been involved in Indo-Pacific security issues not because they want to but because they see the need to do so.

European participation in the region has been primarily cautious and reactive. However, the growing connection between Europe and Asia has altered the backdrop, and Europe must now be more active.

These changes were also reflected in the recent statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a joint press conference with European Council President Charles Michel and Kishida following the EU-Japan Summit in Brussels, just a day (July 13) after the NATO summit in Vilnius.

“We know that Indo-Pacific security and European security are indivisible,” von der Leyen said at the news conference.

The EU-Japan summit 2023 joint statement reflects the need to improve economic resilience, strengthen trade and investment relations, and enhance cooperation in critical raw-material supply chains.

Both the EU and Japan see the need to de-risk their supply chains and make their economies less dependent on China. The EU and Japan also aim to establish a strategic dialogue at the foreign-ministerial level and develop a security partnership.

They agreed on the intensification of counter-piracy cooperation and joint work on energy and green transitions under the Green Alliance, which will be stepped up.

EU and Japanese leaders agreed on accelerating their cooperation on digital transformation after the first meeting of the Digital Partnership Council in Tokyo on July 3, and the signing of memoranda of cooperation on semiconductors and to support secure and resilient submarine-cable connectivity between the EU and Japan.

In addition, they agreed to operationalize their Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure by jointly identifying a first list of substantial connectivity projects. The leaders also welcomed the enhancement of air connectivity between the EU and Japan, which is building on the “EU-Japan Horizontal Agreement for Air Services” signed in February.

Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving prime minister of Japan, certainly left a mark on his country and its foreign and security policies, but also on the Indo-Pacific region, a term he coined.

Tokyo, under Abe’s leadership, adopted the more assertive concept of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” as the basic principle for Japan’s national-security strategy.

Abe, often described as hawkish, didn’t change Japan’s ongoing adherence to the policies that are a testament to the path it has taken as a peace-loving nation: maintaining an exclusively defense-oriented posture, not becoming a military power, and observing the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Japan addressed global challenges during his tenure in cooperation with the US and other partners in the Indo-Pacific region, in Europe, and elsewhere that share the universal values of freedom, democracy, respect for basic human rights, and the rule of law.

Scholars will scrutinize his legacy, considered controversial by some, in the years to come. One thing is for certain: Together with Junichiro Koizumi, Nobusuke Kishi, and Shigeru Yoshida, he will count among the most influential Japanese prime ministers in its modern history, setting a high standard of expectations at home and internationally for any successor to follow.

Source : Asia Times