Abe’s foreign policy legacy

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe holds a news conference on Japan's response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Tokyo, Japan 25 May, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon).

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

Shinzo Abe announced his resignation as Japan’s prime minister on 28 August. He leaves behind a powerful legacy on foreign and security policy. His approach was characterised by a commitment to several top-priority issues, balanced decision making on the advice of his trusted experts — even when he personally held more nationalistic views — and a honed ability to carefully time difficult and controversial decisions.

The US-Japan alliance was the first policy area in which Abe achieved striking success. After establishing the National Security Council in 2013, the Abe government worked for two years to reinterpret the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of Japan’s Constitution to enable the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to fight with US troops. This interpretation is based on a limited recognition of the right to collective self-defence in situations when threats against the United States constitute a threat to Japan’s survival.

Abe visited the United States in April 2015 and made a historic speech at a joint meeting of the US Congress where he expressed his ‘repentance’ to US soldiers who fought against Japan during the Second World War. This was followed by President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbour in 2016.

Abe was fortunate to have realised these achievements before the election of Donald Trump. In addition to forging an Abe–Trump bromance, Abe could argue that Japan had ceased to be a free-rider and was prepared to act more responsively and creatively. This argument was further supported by the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative.

Japan’s China policy was Abe’s second major achievement. He transformed the relationship from one of antagonism to friendship without provoking the United States. He inherited from the Democratic Party of Japan an impossible situation in the …continue reading