By Junko Horiuchi – Japan Today
The successor to outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to continue with the same foreign policies, which Abe’s supporters say have raised global recognition of Japan even though many of its goals remain unachieved, according to some pundits.
But while Japan’s next leader is expected to uphold Abe’s foreign policy positions, such as boosting the Japan-U.S. alliance and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rise, he or she will likely see a slow start in forging personal ties with world leaders, they said.
Abe, who announced his resignation on Friday for health reasons, was known for having developed a close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, especially while playing rounds of golf together over the past years.
Since returning to power nearly eight years ago, Abe also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin 27 times in person.
“Continuity is the core of diplomacy. That has won the trust of other countries,” a senior diplomat at the Japanese Foreign Ministry said. “The relationships between leaders or between foreign ministers, from the periphery to the center, affect diplomatic negotiations.”
Political analyst Norio Toyoshima said Japan will likely have no choice but to continue with current foreign policies, given “especially that the new Cabinet will have a year to go.”
The winner of the upcoming presidential election of the Liberal Democratic Party will serve out the rest of Abe’s term through September 2021, at which point another vote will be held to determine the head of the ruling party for the following three years.
“Whether Japan’s next prime minister can bond with a possibly new U.S. leader following the November presidential election as Mr Abe has done with Trump is uncertain,” Toyoshima said.
As well as general foreign policy, Abe’s successor will inherit the same diplomatic challenges, ranging from China’s increasing assertiveness in regional waters and soured ties with South Korea over territorial and historical issues to negotiations with Washington over how to share the costs of hosting U.S. troops in Japan.
Even under Abe’s long term of government and despite his promises, the issue of past abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea saw no breakthrough, while a long-standing territorial dispute with Russia over a group of islands off Hokkaido also saw virtually no progress in spite of drummed-up expectations.
When Abe returned to office in late 2012, he ended the so-called revolving door leadership in Japan, where there was a new prime minister almost every year since 2006.
With a long-term administration, foreign ministry officials said Japan was better able to pursue and protect its national interests even in the face of great powers such as China, the United States or Russia.
The officials said the passage of sensitive security legislation leading to expanding the role of the Self-Defense Forces abroad, which was made possible because of political stability under Abe, has contributed to Japan’s formation of a stronger relationship with the United States.
“Under Prime Minister Abe, the Japan-U.S. alliance has undoubtedly become stronger…we need to take over and build on his achievements,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters following Abe’s resignation announcement.
“He has established good ties with President Trump, President Putin and other global leaders. That is not just his individual asset but the country’s asset.”
Potential candidates for Japan’s next prime minister include LDP policy head Fumio Kishida, who served as foreign minister under Abe, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. They are highly likely to stick to Abe’s foreign policy course.
But another possible contender, Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who has often been picked as the preferred next leader in opinion polls, has been an Abe critic, including on foreign policy.
“But even if Mr Ishiba becomes premier, because of his relatively small number of supporters within the LDP, he would likely in the end need to depend on other party members, including those close to Abe’s ideas, when he forms a Cabinet and dictates foreign policy,” Toyoshima said.
In the last LDP leadership election in 2018, Ishiba, while agreeing on the need to uphold the bilateral security alliance, questioned Abe’s “golf” diplomacy with Trump, saying, “Japan needs to stand up to the United States when it needs to. Japan should not accept what is not in its interest.”
On the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals, Ishiba has also cast doubt over Abe’s approach, saying it relies too much on the United States in trying to break the stalemate.
“Adding pressure alone does not solve everything,” Ishiba said at the time of the previous election, calling instead for setting up liaison offices in both Tokyo and Pyongyang to nurture trust.