Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise resignation could raise the potential for friction between Washington and Tokyo, shaped for years by the Japanese leader’s assertive foreign policy and warm relationship with President Trump.
“He’s the only leader of a major democracy who has had good relations with Trump from beginning to end,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Zack Cooper observed. “We can’t expect the next prime minister to have that kind of relationship.”
Abe cited poor health in his resignation announcement, ending a record-setting, eight-year run at the top of Japan’s political system. His departure means that a comparative newcomer will be tasked with overseeing Japan’s rise as a military and diplomatic heavyweight in the midst of an economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as the United States and democratic allies seek to manage the threats emanating from an increasingly confrontational China.
“The basis impact of him leaving … more than anything else, it’s got to do with his relationships that he has built over so many decades,” an Indo-Pacific official said. “The loss of Abe is more in terms of the comfort levels which people have developed, and the personality. It’s not normal for Japanese politics for somebody to be in the position for so long.”
American analysts tended to agree that Abe has put Japan on a long-term strategic path to coordinate with the U.S. and other regional powers, especially given China’s truculence and the anger over Beijing’s attempted cover-up in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Abe pioneered a diplomatic initiative to preserve a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a line of thinking that developed into the framework for the U.S. strategy in the region, which depends on increased coordination with Japan and India and overtures to smaller states that seek to avoid an explicit choice between the U.S. and China. He anchored that diplomacy in an improvement of Japan’s military capabilities and a willingness to deploy Japan’s economic influence in strategic ways — a maneuver that new Japanese leaders may find difficult to replicate.
“Although any of Abe’s successors will maintain the support for the alliance and maintain the initiative to do more, particularly against Chinese incursions … I don’t think anyone would have or will be as vigorous in pushing for changes on the security front,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and Northeast Asia expert.
That change may end up only marginal, but it has the potential to take on outsized significance as Trump pushes allies to bear more of a financial burden for U.S. alliance relationships. Many allied leaders have used high-profile arms deals with American defense contractors to mollify Trump’s perception that U.S. allies take advantage of American largess, but Abe is resigning just weeks after Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono forced the abrupt cancellation of a $4.2 billion Aegis Ashore missile defense system.
It’s not clear to American analysts if cancellation reflects a rebuke of the U.S. defense establishment that could intensify after Abe’s departure or if Kono is simply trying to free up the financial resources to purchase weapons that will be more effective for countering China.
There are good arguments to be made for refining Japan’s defense spending, according to analysts who argue that such shifts should not portend any major alteration of Abe’s grand strategy.
“Abe’s most important legacy is likely to be the fact that he demonstrated Japan can lead and play a leading role together with other countries in shaping the international order,” said Center for International and Strategic Studies senior Japan analyst Nicholas Szechenyi. “The framework that he has established is practical and durable for Japan.”
Still, that framework, especially Abe’s use of economic power to counter China’s “predatory” investment operations around the region, could be tested by the global economic swoon caused by the pandemic.
“Japan is pretty much now an integral part at the big boys’ table, they’re very much there, and it’s very, very important that they stay there,” the Indo-Pacific official. “As a result of the economic impact of COVID, are they going to be able to prioritize whatever commitments they have overseas … with similar momentum as there was there before, or will there have to be a little bit of a rethink on that?”
It is in the context of such a rethink that American and Japanese leaders might come to miss the days when the Japanese prime minister was golfing buddies with Trump.
“Abe is seen as having the best relationship of any leader with Trump,” Klingner said. “I think the next leader may not be willing to put as much effort into appeasing or capitulating to Trump, so we’ll see what effect that has.”
Tags: News, Foreign Policy, National Security, Japan, Shinzo Abe, China, Pacific Ocean
Original Author: Joel Gehrke
Original Location: Abe resignation may rile US-Japan ties calmed by personal bond with Trump