Now for Something Completely Different: Kind Words for Abe Shinzo

After Abe Shinzo’s victory in the LDP presidential race, Japan Security Watch co-perpetrator James Simpson and I consoled ourselves on Twitter with recognition that while Abe may have been a failure (and indeed a potential danger) on the domestic front the first time around, his foreign and security policy accomplishments, aside from a few indiscrete remarks, were significant.

There is a tendency to see Japan’s foreign policy in the 21st century split between the “conservative nationalist” period which would cover the Koizumi, Abe and Aso cabinets, and the “Asianist” period with the LDP Fukuda interlude and the DPJ (or earlier to Obuchi if you want book ends). If one however pays attention to what was done, rather than what was said during the last 11 years, a more appropriate division could arguably be made between the Koizumi tenure and the post-Koizumi tenure, of which Abe ushered into existence.

The fact of the matter is is that Koizumi’s foreign policy was not only somewhat opportunistic but often unfocused. In terms of military and security policy, Koizumi dedicated Japan’s resources to inappropriate endeavours and his adminstration appeared to lack an articulated strategic focus other than to simply follow behind the US, something which ultimately overstretched the SDF’s resources and doctrinal coherence to the point of danger. Only, perhaps ironically, under the DPJ, are we seeing a more robust and focused consideration and debate in regards to what the SDF should be doing, rather than trying to do everything or anything that is politically expedient at the time. Koizumi also displaced Obuchi’s human security agenda from the centre of Japan’s foreign policy, at least rhetorically, seemingly on the basis of personal whim. This was an area of foreign policy endeavour where Japan was a global leader and one of great value in terms of Japan’s national interests in the strategically important Southeast Asia region. During Koizumi’s time in office Japan’s crediblity and influence in Southeast Asia fell to its lowest levels, while China was making significant strides precisely at this time. Despite this, Koizumi only visited Southeast Asia once during five years outside of multilateral forums and the like. Even when he did things right, like embracing Indonesia during the post-tsunami humanitarian crisis and during the subsequent crisis (and then peace-process) in Aceh, he failed in terms of follow up and ensuring Japan remained committed. Indeed, after making the initial running Japan meekly ceded a primary leadership role to Finland in Aceh. If Koizumi had of cared more about a coherent and consistent foreign policy in this critical region he may well have ended up with a Nobel Peace Prize as well as enhancing Japanese credibility in the region. The less said about Northeast Asia under Koizumi’s watch, the better, of course.

Abe on the other hand, while only in office one year, was much more focused in terms of foreign policy goals, and was generally constructive and effective. Japan security and geopolitical relations with many strategically critical nations for Japan such as India, Australia, and Vietnam actually went forward in concrete terms in all realms – diplomatic, economic and military. Relations with Northeast Asia, much to everyone’s surprise, stabilized and improved. Abe, and those who came after him, presided over actual progress being made on FTAs/EPAs in the region rather than simply engaging in rhetoric about “region building.” If one pays close attention to what has actually happened under the DPJ in terms of foreign policy, strategic and security policy developments, (that is, rather than being distracted by the diplomatic and political noise), then much of what the DPJ has done effectively in foreign and security policy, albeit quietly, is arguably a continuation and strengthening of tendencies and agendas initiated under the Abe regime.

While the above is somewhat oversimplified for the purposes of making clear that not all is what it seems, it is in this context that one can read fellow antipodean and friend of the show Andrew Levidis‘ articulate, balanced and unsentimental take (not a criticism) on what an Abe 2.0 administration might mean – something MTC was right to identify.

One paragraph in particular could well describe where the DPJ after three years has ended up in regards to foreign policy thinking:

Japan’s diplomatic strategy toward China during the Abe cabinet was symbolised by an ‘unsentimental perception of friendship’ in which China was ‘neither enemy, nor neutral nor friend’. As premier, Abe made the symbolic decision to visit Beijing, endorsed the official declaration of wartime aggression and accepted the creation of a Sino–Japanese history commission. Yet at the same time he rejected the link between anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and the so-called history problem, criticised China experts within Japan for their ‘excessive reactions’, warned of the instability within China from the loss of the philosophical paradigm of ‘equality of outcomes’, and warned of China’s rapid acquisition of military power.

This view would not be out of place among some of the junior and centrist elements of the DPJ, although this was not necessarily the case at the start of 2009. The irony is that Abe’s social and domestic agenda is anethema to many of these very same people, despite there being areas of linkage in the foreign and security policy dimension. Abe’s seeming contempt for the Japanese constitution, symbolized by the setting up of the ‘Yanai Committee’ to discuss how to “reinterpret” the constitution, is also viewed by many in the centre (of both parties) as cynical and contrary to the very spirit of democratic liberalism that Abe and other conservatives are keen to promote as the key difference between Japan and China.

The other issue is that the foreign policy Abe wanted to pursue, and the one he did pursue, may well have been quite different – such are the difficulties of being in a position of compromise and there is no necessary shame in that. However if is is indeed the case, as some have suggested, that Abe believes that the foreign policy he pursued while in office was too soft, rather than being somewhat competent, then this is indeed a troubling thought.

I will leave the last words to Andrew:

Shinzo Abe’s return to the presidency of the LDP and (potentially) to the Japanese premiership offers both opportunity and danger, and the degree to which he succeeds in reconciling the seeming contradictions within his vision will have a direct bearing upon Japan’s relations and role in Asia.

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