Index > Briefing
Monday, September 07, 2020
Thoughts on Post-Abe Japan in Foreign Policy

After more than 7 years of steady rule, Shinzo Abe’s resignation as Japan’s prime minister has once again put the country’s foreign policy into the world’s spotlight. With the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) racing for the selection of new party leader and later on, the nation’s prime minister, several possible candidates have come to the fore. Apart from the ambitious Shigeru Ishiba who attempted to challenge Abe for the party’s leadership in the past, others such as Yoshihide Suga (current Cabinet Secretary) and Fumio Kishida, are expected to stand as contenders for the top post within the LDP as well as the government.

Among them, Suga is touted as the most promising candidate as he is perceived to be faction-less and its ability to unite different factions within the political party to form the next government. Of course, not to mention his proximity to both Nikai and Hosoda factions that put him as the best candidate to secure the support of two among other major factions within the party. By and large, such news reverberated positive expectation from certain Chinese experts such as Hu Lingyuan of Fudan University, who sees China-Japan relations will be on steady hands should Suga becomes the next prime minister and as such, continues Abe’s policy in preserving the country’s constructive ties with Beijing.

Arguably, if China-Japan relations are considered in vacuum, such expectation may very well be the reality of how bilateral ties will evolve in the post-Abe period. This is in light of the economic complementarity between the two neighbours which makes it impractical for either side to adjust if not abandon, the trading ‘fruits’ they enjoyed thus far. But such premise, however, totally overlooked the relationship between China-Japan ties and Tokyo’s decades-long security alliance with the US ⸺ which until today, remained to be the cornerstone of Japanese security policy and to a certain extent, an influential factor in the pursuit of the establishment’s foreign policy in Kasumigaseki. In view of such triangular relationships, there are three considerations that one should look into before forecasting Japan’s foreign policy in the post-Abe era.

The Three Considerations

First, the perception of China within the Japanese public and LDP, has been at a low level even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Japan. According to Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes survey in late 2019, as much as 85% of Japanese public viewed China negatively ⸺ a figure that put Japan as the country which had the most negative view of China among the 32 countries polled that year. More importantly, such survey was conducted months before the three events: the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, the passing of the Hong Kong security law and the continuing dispute of the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands. With all these three issues involving China converging at the same time, it will be challenging to expect the Japanese public will have a more positive view of Beijing this year.

Similarly, China-skeptic hawks in the LDP have been on the rise despite there is a group of lawmakers headed by Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai (head of Nikai faction), which favours closer alignment with Beijing in Japan’s foreign policy. As Masaya Inoue of Seikei University puts it, notwithstanding small factions trying to counter the hard-line stance toward China within the LDP, the party today is generally filled with China-skeptics who inherited such political stand since the Fukuda administration in the 1970s. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why the LDP’s foreign policy committees pressured Abe to withdraw his invitation to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping for the latter’s state visit in July 2020. By all means, his successor will have to confront these two domestic scenarios in pursuing Tokyo’s foreign policy after the new government is sworn in ⸺ especially when Japan has to utilise its military alliance with Washington as a means to stand against China on security issues such as the Senkaku Islands’ dispute.

Second, the US-China rivalry today has also entered uncharted waters in which military conflict is no longer a distant dream for many. Given its vested relationships with both US and China, such challenge remains to be the most difficult for Abe’s successor to grapple with. On one hand, Tokyo has to safeguard its close trade ties with China while on the other, the former has to depend on its security alliance with the US to safeguard both national and regional security against hypothetical threats (including China). As reported by Kyodo News in last July, Suga himself was aware of such dilemma as a middle power and even recognised that the balance of power strategy might not be suitable anymore given the current freefall relationship between Washington and Beijing. Instead, Suga alerted of the possibility in siding with one of the two powers as the eventual option for Japan in the near future. While he did not mention which country to side in case such scenario becomes a reality, political observers should not be too conclusive in that he will choose China as opposed to the US if he becomes the new Japanese prime minister.

Last, Abe’s successor inherits his legacy of Japan as a proactive leader in the Southeast Asia region. As a person without much experience in foreign policy, it is challenging for Suga (more than Kishida and Ishiba) to preserve Japan’s leadership status in Asia without heavy reliance on the foreign policy establishment. That said, the current Abe administration’s policy of encouraging its manufacturers to shift production from China into either Japan’s own shores or Southeast Asian countries, will likely to be continued in consideration of the urgency compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the freefalling US-China relations.

This will be a boost for Southeast Asian countries as they are eager to seek ever more economic cooperation with external powers to weather the economic difficulties triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as seeking a reliable external power that can balance the Chinese military power in the ASEAN region. With Japan’s collective pursuit with the US, India and Australia for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision as a security counter against Beijing in Southeast Asia, on top of Tokyo’s national economic interest to reduce its overdependence on China, the country fits well into the sort of external power needed by the ASEAN member states. In other words, there is no doubt that post-Abe Japan will continue to contest with China as economic and military rivals vis-à-vis their engagements with Southeast Asian countries.

From the three considerations above, it is obvious that the triangular relationships among Japan, China and the US should be the larger context in which Beijing-Tokyo ties should be considered within. While we can treat China-Japan relations as business as usual in the past, the current volatility in Asia’s international relations has made it difficult for such take. With Japan so high invested in its security alliance with the US that is expanding into a possible Quadrilateral security bloc alongside Australia and India, it will be a serious oversight for political observers not to consider such relationship in their forecasts of Sino-Japanese ties under the post-Abe Japanese administration.

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