Abe legacy is Japan as 'normal' nation
Japan's outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be missed throughout much of Asia, including China. His health-induced political departure attributable to a recurrence of ulcerative colitis brings to an end Japan's longest-serving prime minister in a consecutive tenure. While much will be recorded about his rich legacy, Mr Abe should be seen as a natural mover and shaker who reshaped Japan into a more "normal" country able to pursue its national interest like others by all available means.
Mr Abe leveraged Japan's wherewithal and raised its global game by punching above its already considerably weight, displaying finesse and pragmatism and seizing initiatives at will after he took power in December 2012. His longevity in office is unlikely to be surpassed by any successor. Leaders from variable parliamentary systems, as opposed to fixed-term presidencies, generally come and go without enough time for foreign policy continuity. Mr Abe's global impact meant he had to have two things under control, namely intra-party factionalism within the Liberal Democratic Party and intra-coalition unity with the Komeito Party, a junior partner.
His shortcomings have already been hammered around, from the lack of structural economic reform integral to "Abenomics" to his poor handling of Covid-19 and a series of scandals involving public resources for personal political gains. Many also have faulted him for nationalistic tendencies, particularly his attempt to revise Japan's post-war pacifist constitution. Notwithstanding criticisms of his rule, Mr Abe put the right foot on many issues in foreign and security policies, and remade Asia's geopolitical landscape.
His relations with the United States under President Donald Trump stand out the most. Mr Abe was the first world leader to visit Mr Trump at the latter's residence right after the November 2016 election. As Mr Trump proved unpredictable and the US unreliable as a treaty ally and security guarantor, he realigned Japan's ties with China. The Japan-China realignment was manifested in October 2018 when Mr Abe visited Beijing and came back with more than 50 cooperative projects in third-country markets. Thailand's Smart City project, under Amata Group in Chon Buri province, became the pilot project for Japan-China economic cooperation. President Xi Jinping was supposed to visit Japan this year in return to further cement the relationship but the trip has been put on hold due to Covid-19. Under Mr Abe's watch, Japan-China ties appeared the most promising, although it is unclear if the bilateral upgrade will continue moving forward.
On the Korean Peninsula, Mr Abe's handling was more mixed. Surprisingly, Japan's relations with South Korea soured even though both countries are US allies. Seoul revived wartime issues of comfort women and forced labour which Tokyo insisted had already been settled with agreed reparations. Mr Abe then stood up to South Korea, and a bilateral spat ensued, spilling over into trade friction. And Mr Abe did not really have an answer for North Korea's nuclear threat.
However, he did bolster Japan's Self-Defence Forces and, most conspicuously, refitted two medium-sized helicopter carriers to accommodate US-made F-35 fighter jets capable of short take-offs and vertical landings. The Abe administration also reinterpreted Article 9 of the constitution to enable Japan to undertake military operations for collective self-defence.
In regional security, the Japan-initiated Trilateral Security Dialogue from Mr Abe's first term in 2006-07, which also ended because of the same health ailment, was rebooted and broadened into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. This foursome of security among the major and middle powers of the Japan, the US, Australia, and India became the lynchpin of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), a counterweight to China's Belt and Road Initiative.
On regional trade liberalisation, the Abe government shored up the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership after the Trump administration withdrew and refashioned it into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Similarly, Japan has been instrumental in the Asean-centred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is close to finalisation. Without the Abe government's proactive stance, neither the CPTPP nor the RCEP would be where they are today.
Closer to home, Japan under Mr Abe has been the major power that has contended for regional influence with China in mainland Southeast Asia. The Japan-Mekong cooperative agreements and projects, backed by multibillion-dollar funding assistance over many years, have made Japan the main rival of China in the Mekong space, far more than the resources and roles of other players, such as the US and Australia. What's more, the Mekong countries invariably welcomed Tokyo's deeper enmeshment to counter China's aggressive building of upstream dams.
On Thailand, Mr Abe was the first major world leader of a staunch democracy to recognise the Thai military government that took power after the coup in May 2014. But he did it with nuance. Having to stay in the regional great game vis-a-vis China, which had embraced Thailand's military regime, Mr Abe received coup leader and Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha in February 2015 but got him to pledge that elections would take place by early 2016. It turned out to be a bogus promise but Mr Abe pursued Japan's interests without selling out its democratic principles.
Seeing Mr Abe up close in action confirmed his penchant for taking initiatives and providing an element of surprise. In January 2016, the Abe foreign policy team wanted to leverage Japanese democracy for regional influence. So it invited a small group of so-called thought leaders to a talk shop in Tokyo. The agenda went off as designed but at the end of it Mr Abe showed up unannounced to give closing remarks, before taking meeting delegates to an official dinner where he took photos with each participant, made ceremonial remarks, and carried on to make one hour feel like a long evening.
There are many shakers in world politics. Mr Trump can convulse the world through his fast-moving tweets, not necessarily making his country be held in higher regard. Mr Xi does not move quickly but, when he does, all take notice. Mr Abe moves boldly with attendant risks and aims for impact in the pursuit of Japan's national interest. The myriad commentaries worldwide on his departure from the global scene will likely attest to his chief legacy of making Japan a "normal" country.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.