Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting in Beijing on October 26, 2018. Photo: pool via Jiji Press / AFP

Dealing with geography and balancing geopolitics have been two staple factors influencing Japanese foreign policy. Along the same tangent, China’s location as a geographic neighbor and the brewing geopolitical rivalry between Tokyo and Beijing in the maritime domain have served as two episodic aspects of Japan’s China policy.

These two factors coupled with China’s rise to replace Japan as an influential economic actor in various global forums, as well as Japan’s increasingly close ties with the United States, are critical facets that have shaped Tokyo’s outlook toward Beijing. 

With the Shinzo Abe era coming to an end amid Japan’s precarious security situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is critical to look at the trajectory Japan’s China policy may take under a new governance. Will the new leadership find a “new normal” in their relationship with China?

A brief review of Japan’s China policy under Prime Minister Abe’s leadership, the China outlook of the Liberal Democratic Party’s top leadership, and trends in domestic political debates will help us answer this question. 

Nationalistic yet pragmatic 

Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, is frequently credited for significantly shaping a bold and dynamic foreign policy, particularly with regards to China. However, with his election to a second term in 2012 coinciding with the revival of heightened tensions with China over the territorial dispute related to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Abe’s China policy (and to an extent, his foreign policy) has unquestionably been a product of geopolitical circumstances. 

Abe’s reforms of foreign and security policy, including the ongoing debate over Japan’s acquisition of first-strike capabilities, are logical steps in the process of realignment that Tokyo has been undergoing since the end of the Cold War.

The Abe administration’s efforts to reach out to China prior to the Covid-19 outbreak along with its explicit attempts to strengthen partnerships with like-minded Indo-Pacific states, particularly the US, Australia and India, follow this trajectory as well.

Therefore, in light of recently intensifying tensions with China and an increasingly complex regional security environment, it seems highly unlikely that there will be a shift away from Japan’s existing outlook toward its neighbors, including China. 

In the wake of Abe’s resignation, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stated that Beijing stands “ready to work with Japan to continue to improve and develop bilateral relations.” Similarly, Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times has explicitly conveyed the message that whoever succeeds Abe should largely continue in his footsteps.

These indicate that China is keeping a close eye on Japan’s emerging political situation, and would like to see a prime minister who will pursue a moderate China policy. 

Sino-Japanese ties were at one of their lowest points when Abe took office in 2012. Abe was judicious in his approach to China. He continued to reform Japan’s security structure without reacting much or engaging in outright confrontation with the leadership in Beijing. His personality clash with President Xi Jinping was evident, yet he managed it well.

Under Abe, Sino-Japanese relations gradually improved. The credit for this, as Global Times itself has said, lies with the fact that economic, social and cultural cooperation between China and Japan stayed largely positive despite their lingering dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands by China) and a bolstering of military capabilities on both sides.

Abe’s implementation of seikei bunri, a long-standing Japanese principle denoting separation of economics and politics, resulted in a pragmatic China policy. Abe acknowledged the economic benefits of ties with Beijing and chose to deepen them in order to fulfill national interests.

At the same time, he trod a national-security-driven balance on Japan’s China policies in the Indo-Pacific region and Asia at large. China is now one of Japan’s most important trading partners, representing almost 20% of its total trade. 

Abe’s broad ‘Indo-Pacific’ agenda

A cornerstone of Abe’s doctrine was enhanced engagement with the world: Japan not only emerged as a leader on the world stage with deepening bilateral ties but also as an active alliance architect.

For instance, on the bilateral front, Tokyo pursued a close relationship with New Delhi, so much so that their ties are widely regarded as a key force shaping Asian politics in the coming era. Beyond Asia, Japan is also set to be one of the first nations to sign a trade deal with the UK post-Brexit. A comprehensive economic partnership with Europe was another hallmark for Abe. 

On the multilateral engagement front, Japan emerged as a leader in the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the United States’ withdrawal. It also successfully pushed for an “Indo-Pacific” concept and the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) over the last few years. Even with the change in leadership, Tokyo will likely see a continuation of this policy.

However, the unexpected political uncertainty in the midst of Japan’s Covid-19-induced economic recession may lead to a revision, or pause, of the economic decoupling from China. This goal received a renewed thrust from Abe, who allotted US$2.2 billion in Japan’s Covid-19 recovery stimulus to support an exodus of Japanese manufacturing firms from China. While Japan may continue to pursue a diversification of its supply chains, an economic decoupling to the tune of Abe’s current policy may not be feasible in the future.

Abe’s military modernization allowed Japan to defend itself against Chinese maritime incursions, deepen security cooperation with Quad partners and maintain, while pursuing the “one-China policy,” a quiet relationship with Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen even thanked Abe for the “strong support” he has shown Taiwan upon receiving news of his resignation.

Similarly, in their virtual summit in July, Abe and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison expressed “grave concern” over Beijing’s imposition of the national-security law on Hong Kong, stating that the move eroded the city’s autonomy. In June, Abe offered refuge to Hong Kong workers in specialized fields while also stating that Japan wished to lead the Group of Seven on its response to the situation in Hong Kong.

Such proactiveness with regards to sensitive staples of China’s foreign policy – “one-China” and “one country, two Systems” – has been a result of Abe’s nuanced understanding of China that his successor will mold over time.

Contenders’ China outlook

One of the most likely successors to Abe, Defense Minister Taro Kono, has exhibited a stern stance on China. Kono recently expressed Tokyo’s willingness to become a full-fledged member of the Five Eyes group. A Cold War–era intelligence-sharing alliance comprising the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the group has recently shifted focus to checking Chinese aggression, combating terrorism, and monitoring North Korea’s missile program.

Additionally, Kono has frequently warned of China’s military ambitions and continuous provocations in the East China Sea as well as its implications for Japan. 

Under a prime minister Kono, Tokyo might even accelerate its plans to decouple the Japanese economy from China as a way of checking Beijing. Kono’s outlook was emphasized by his statements after a meeting with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on August 29. Kono and Esper confirmed their joint commitment to “strongly oppose” China’s attempts to change “unilaterally the status quo by force” in the South and East China Seas.

Other prominent contenders for the prime-ministerial office are Foreign Affairs Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Fumio Kishida, who held that ministry from 2012 to 2017. Both have been critical of China. Motegi, for instance, recently criticized China’s imposition of the national-security law in Hong Kong. Kishida, on the other hand, has voiced worries over China’s activities in the East China Sea while at the same time advocating increased dialogue. 

Another popular leader, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, has also been publicly anti-China during the pandemic. In April, he accused the World Health Organization of playing by China’s rules in investigating the origins and early handling of the pandemic in China. Aso also advocated Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO while slamming it as a “Chinese Health Organization.” 

Suga Yoshihide, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, is now widely seen as the frontrunner to succeed Abe. He has also pushed Tokyo’s China policy in recent months. He has reportedly been at the forefront of Japan’s push to diversify its supply chains and reduce reliance on its neighbor for “key supplies from masks to car parts.”

Both Aso and Yoshihide formed part of Abe’s inner circle and were key to formulating and executing foreign policy. It is likely that under their leadership, Japan will continue on its current trajectory with regards to China and its broader vision for the region.

On the other hand, Shigeru Ishiba, Japan’s former defense minister, who is also a frontrunner for the position, could orchestrate a significant abatement in Japan’s present outlook.

A dovish character, Ishiba has been hesitant to change the state’s long-standing pacifist constitution. Abe’s longtime rival and one of his chief opponents during the 2012 elections, Ishiba is also sympathetic toward China and has frequently criticized Abe’s tough stance towards its neighbor.

In July, the Chinese ambassador to Japan, Kong Xuanyou, referred to Ishiba as an “old friend” when the two met to discuss Asia’s security environment and the situation in Hong Kong. Reportedly, China already expects Ishiba to succeed Abe; Beijing believes he may adopt a more “well-balanced” foreign policy and does not view him as inherently anti-China or closely aligned with the US. 

Therefore, under Ishiba, Tokyo might resort to Abe’s engagement strategy (which was nationalist yet pragmatic) and push for increased dialogue with Beijing. He would likely attempt to deny Abe’s continued influence within the Liberal Democratic Party and over the administration’s foreign and security policies, especially toward Beijing.

This might, for one, manifest as an abandonment (or at the very least, a pause) of Abe’s decoupling strategy from the Chinese economy. However, it seems unlikely that Japan would not pursue military modernization and advancements in light of structural restraints presented by the complicated and intense security dynamics in its immediate neighborhood. 

Clearly, Tokyo will continue to debate its China policy vigorously. Factors such as a shift in the security dynamics of the region and Beijing’s approach to the South and East China Seas will undoubtedly influence Japan’s China outlook post-Abe.

An exact replication of Abe’s China policy might be on the LDP’s leadership agenda for some time. But the extent to which it emerges as an enduring policy that guides and secures Japanese interests amidst a rising, revisionist and radical China remains to be seen.

Shinzo Abe certainly awakened a previously silent Japanese society on the China issue. In fact, from the very outset of his term in office, Abe had a clear and apparent China outlook. Will his successors have a similar approach? It seems very unlikely.

This is the second article of a three-part series on Japan after Shinzo Abe. Part 1 examined what direction Japan’s Indo-Pacific activism will take post-Abe, and the third part examines the prospects of Japan’s relations with India in the post-Abe period.

Jagannath Panda

Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and center coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.