Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains a central figure in Japanese right wing and nationalistic circles. Photo: AFP / Franck Robichon

Few world leaders will be as remembered as the outgoing prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, with regards to the debate over the Indo-Pacific region. Above his many accomplishments, Abe has emerged as one of Asia’s most effective leaders in the past decade, contributing to a stable Japan fully committed to regional peace and security, along with its ally the US. 

From proposing a “broader Asia” in the Indian Parliament in 2007, which eventually translated into major Indo-Pacific overtures, revitalizing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad 2.0) process, commercializing the need for “quality” infrastructure to manage a divided domestic debate and advocating for “proactive pacifism” for Japan while pitching “collective self-defense,” Abe will leave behind strong legacies as the longest-serving prime minister of Japan.

Thus Abe’s resignation due to health concerns has brought this question to the forefront: To what extent will Japan’s political class be able to take ahead Abe’s legacy on the Indo-Pacific region? 

This question assumes greater importance given the current economic recession and mounting political uncertainty. Japan’s continued energetic foreign and security policies will be key to the region and its allies.

The power struggle within the Liberal Democratic Party and factional politics in Japan are nothing new. Though a leadership change does not necessarily denote radical foreign-policy changes, it needs to be seen how the new LDP leadership will take forward the most deliberative aspect of the existing Japanese foreign policy that has brought activism into Tokyo’s internationalism: the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). 

Abe’s pan-Asia outlook

Although FOIP became a flagship foreign-policy crusade for Japan, there was never a strong consensus among political leaders on promoting this concept to shape Japan’s foreign and security architecture in times to come. The section of the ambitious “peace and security legislation” that revised 10 laws and reinforced the International Peace Support Bill was debated critically.

Political opponents and the public often questioned if and how the bill would provide adequate security to Japan in an increasingly contested regional theater. In 2007, Abe did not hesitate to denote his vision for a “Broader Asia” that moves away from erstwhile geographical boundaries.

The fact that this statement was made in an address to the Indian Parliament showed the great strategic importance Abe had bestowed upon New Delhi. This speech was famously titled the “Confluence of the Two Seas,” highlighting the growing and pivotal weight being accorded to the Indian and Pacific Oceans in order to espouse an Indo-Pacific outlook.

In the same year, during Abe’s first (and brief) stint as prime minister, investors were alarmed at the suggested move away from China, where they had already invested heavily. With Abe allotting almost US$2.2 billion of the Covid-19 stimulus fund to shift Japanese production out of China (with the first round of subsidies already distributed), a continuation of this exodus might be reconsidered once the pandemic subsides.

Such a move, especially in light of continued Chinese maritime aggression in the East and South China Seas during the pandemic, is highly likely to undo any semblance of decoupling from China. That subject is examined more closely in Part 2 of this series.

Japan’s revival as a regional power

Abe’s administration pursued more robust security reform amid the deteriorating security landscape in East Asia, ever-mounting pressure from North Korea under Kim Jong Un, and Xi Jinping’s “new era” foreign policy. The Indo-Pacific region is already a highly sensitive zone where Japan has managed to emerge as a major player over the years.

With India (Japan’s natural partner) and allies like the US looking to become more actively involved in the region, any hesitancy on Tokyo’s end could be highly detrimental for the broader goals of a free Indo-Pacific and the larger rules-based international order that has been central to Japan’s global outlook.

Defense Minister Taro Kono’s recent emphasis on Japan’s potential inclusion in the “Five Eyes” network to advance mutual strategic interests is another possible future development that may now be re-analyzed. With Kono himself poised as one of the potential successors to Abe, Japan as a “sixth eye” may still be a possibility.

Preserving Abe’s FOIP legacy

It would not be wrong to say that Abe’s three main legacies are a solidified Quad 2.0 for the Indo-Pacific; a reinvigorated boost to Japan’s national security by reforming its pacifist constitution with a special focus on Article 9; and leading Asia on the road to a sustainable quality infrastructure narrative, mainly in the form of its Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) guided by “Abenomics.”

In order to preserve Abe’s legacy on the Indo-Pacific, and to maintain a semblance of continuity, the LDP will continue to build on Abe’s advocacy on the Indo-Pacific – with the possible exception of economic de-coupling from China. 

Under Abe, Japan’s ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the US, India, Australia, Vietnam and even China have revolved around its Indo-Pacific strategies. For instance, for the past 10 years, tensions between China and Japan over the East China Sea have adversely affected their ties.

Nonetheless, Abe followed a pragmatic China policy by adhering to Japan’s age-old seikei bunri principle, which denotes a demarcation between politics and economics. By accepting the economic benefits of Sino-Japanese ties, Abe attempted improving ties with Beijing despite tensions between the two in the Indo-Pacific leading to rocky political relations. 

Building collective self-defense

Focusing on “alliance building” was a key component of Abe’s foreign policy even as Japan aimed to create stronger partnerships outside its normal alliance framework. Abe’s conviction to bring the US (alliance partner) and India (special global partner) under one umbrella along with its Pacific partner Australia was the differentiator.

In other words, building an umbrella of alliance-alignment frameworks was the key arch of Abe’s Quad 2.0 that will be remembered as his flagship achievement. 

Likewise, Abe was convinced that a revision or abolition of Article 9 and its related clauses was necessary if Japan were to regain the glorious history, the “beautiful Japan” that existed before World War II.

No matter how unconvincing such an analogy appeared domestically, a broader consensus existed that Japan needed to reorient its security-military outlook in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the 21st century, and much of the credit for this goes to Abe.

Chinese revisionism and North Korea’s aggressive actions made Shinzo Abe all the more alert and vigilant; Japan also understood that it could not completely rely on its alliance partner, the US. 

In other words, the complex interplay between domestic political influences and external security factors compelled Abe to edge toward collective self-defense. While domestic debates urged Abe to follow a cautious path, the external security environment boosted his courage to defy internal difficulties and pursue a nationalist foreign policy and advocate for collective self-defense.

In other words, Abe put the “hedging” strategy into the background and instead activated “collective self-defense” as the real-time driving force behind Japan’s security policy. 

Structural reforms, infrastructure diplomacy

Abe’s structural reforms were seen as ambitious and controversial. Three elements – aggressive monetary policies, consolidation of fiscal strength and a growth strategy rooted in structural reforms – were central to Abenomics.

Abe’s 2015 call for building “partnership for quality infrastructure” in this regard was crucial, and was revised in 2016 and reintroduced as Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure.

In fact, the EPQI became the first major Asia-centered enterprise to stand somewhat as an alternative to China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while also facilitating the integration of Japan with other global initiatives like the US-Japan-Australia driven Blue Dot Network (BDN) and the “Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region.” 

EPQI also connected with the economic multilateralism promoted by Abe during the course of his tenure: Examples of this were reflected in Japan’s drive to bring to fruition the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) even after the US withdrawal from the original TPP and its dedication to cementing a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with India.

Further, Japan’s presidency of the Group of Twenty was focused on promoting “quality infrastructure” via investments and consensus building. Similarly, Japan’s commitment to the Vientiane Declaration drew on infrastructural and connectivity development promotion. 

Considering the above-mentioned initiatives, Japan’s post-Abe foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region will largely be dependent on the extent to which the new leadership can revive the Japanese economy. In this regard, sustaining the principles attached to Abenomics will continue to influence both Japanese foreign policy and its approach to the Indo-Pacific.

Future leaders must build on this uniquely Japanese narrative; the post-pandemic regional and Japanese recession, however, remains a major challenge to overcome. 

With Abe focusing on expanding Quad 2.0 by accepting “Quad Plus” in order to build inclusive and broader partnerships via foreign direct investment, his legacy is vital for Japan’s post-Covid economic recovery. Not to overlook Abe’s “Japan Is Back” speech of 2013, which showcased his ideas of “proactive contribution to peace,” otherwise known as “proactive pacifism.”

In his speech, he said it was vital for Japan to remain a “rules promoter, a commons’ guardian, and an effective ally.” For Japan’s Indo-Pacific growth and activism to survive post-Abe, his successor must accept, even if he does not endorse all of his other policies, this vision for Japan. 

This is the first article of a three-part series on Japan after Shinzo Abe. The second part of this series examines what Japan’s China policy will be post-Abe, and the third part 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.