Abe's resignation creates uncertainty — and opportunity — in US-Japan relations
© Getty Images

Shinzō Abe’s abrupt decision to resign as prime minister has already begun to fuel uncertainty about Japan’s long-term economic future, global presence, and even the state of its security alliance with the U.S. Abe’s second tenure in the post, the longest in Japanese history, was characterized from start to finish by his resolve to erase two “lost decades” of economic and strategic drift. He ostensibly succeeded at both — addressing the first issue until Japan’s economic downturn following a consumption tax increase late last year, and leaving an indelible mark with the second.

Indeed, although Abe’s administration has been marred by multiple scandals and accusations of mishandling the initial government response to COVID-19, in many ways his most lasting legacy will be that of a captain who kept his country on a stable heading in choppy geopolitical waters. Still, once Abe leaves office, following an expedited Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election anticipated for no later than Sept. 15, his successor — whether his longtime chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, his former foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, or someone else — will face a unique set of domestic and international challenges.

At home, Japan’s next prime minister will have to deal with the pandemic and economic downturn without equal since the 1950s. Though Japan’s pandemic is mild by international comparison, spring’s emergency lockdowns have erased any economic gains from the past seven years of “Abenomics” — Abe’s signature economic strategy of rapid monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms. As COVID-19 promises to hamper Japan’s economic recovery, Tokyo will also have to contend with other structural challenges posed by Japan’s growing demographic crisis, narrowing social welfare net, and shrinking technological competitiveness.

Internationally, Japan’s next prime minister will have to grapple with the continued proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction out of North Korea, not to mention an increasingly complex geopolitical environment characterized by mounting competition between Japan’s largest trading partner (China) and its strongest security ally (the U.S.).

In this grim context, Abe’s departure also presents an opportunity for Tokyo to take stock of how far its international station has improved over the past seven years. Abe’s national security reforms and vigorous diplomacy have paid off; Japan is in a much more secure position today. Japan’s National Security Secretariat, established in 2013, affords its prime minister greater capacity for strategic planning, coordination and execution — especially for dealing with unexpected contingencies such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and current COVID-19 response.

Abe’s dramatic expansion of the Cabinet Office, which over time has diverted policymaking authority from the traditional ministries, also has aided his ability to govern effectively. Legislative reforms enabling Tokyo in intelligence sharing and collective self-defense, coupled with consecutive defense budget increases, have empowered Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to assume a more responsible posture across the Indo-Pacific theater. Under Abe’s stewardship, Japan has diversified its security relationships with Australia, India, and the ASEAN member-states, along with other like-minded actors such as NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The “Quad,” an early idea of Abe’s to establish a security partnership between Japan, the U.S., Australia and India, slowly has been realized. After Washington pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, Tokyo quickly rallied to enact two free-trade zones — one with the remaining 10 TPP nations, and the other with the European Union.

To be sure, Abe’s diplomatic efforts, much like his domestic agenda, have been marked by occasional limitations and setbacks. Early on, Abe incited criticism from China and South Korea for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine — though, to his credit, he refrained from further shrine visits to avoid feeding skepticism about his perceived nationalism. Under his watch, Tokyo’s relationship with Seoul, the other mature, U.S.-aligned democracy in Northeast Asia, has continued to flounder amid recurrent political differences. Abe’s efforts to support regional capacity-building, in part to offset dependencies on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, also have run into roadblocks.

Most relevant for the U.S., Abe’s strategy of dealing with President Trump by forging a personal friendship has yielded mixed results. Though the Trump-Abe connection anchored recent bilateral relations, this principal-led approach also has made cooperation more susceptible to the whims of a relatively small group of senior decision-makers. Abe has sought to minimize this problem by ensuring that cooperation remains institutionalized. But the extent to which his replacements will continue to do so remains unknown. 

This is potentially a problem. The principal-driven relationship has had notable successes, to be certain. These include close alignment on core strategic concerns; increased cooperation in new security areas such as cyber, digital and space; progress on trade issues with the signature of bilateral market access and digital trade agreements last year; and recent multilateral cooperation on building supply chain resilience amid COVID-19. These haven’t been sufficient to overcome other important issues, though, such as safeguarding Japan from losses because of the U.S.-China trade war; limiting Japanese exposure to U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs; and resolving U.S. calls for increased military burden-sharing.

Regardless of whether Trump remains in office past January, the next prime minister’s foreign policy success will depend in no small measure on how well he adapts to the current principal-driven dynamic. Abe’s likely successors, while largely aligned with him on many foreign policy issues, not only could respond to Trump’s or Joe Biden’s policies with varying degrees of effectiveness, but also may accordingly display different levels of tolerance for their potential demands on trade deficit rebalancing or burden-sharing.  

This is not to say that the U.S.-Japan alliance will deteriorate. Regardless of who leads each side in the months ahead, Washington and Tokyo surely will remain aligned on fundamental approaches regarding the advancement of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” However, based on recent setbacks in U.S. missile defenseand other arms procurements by Japan, ostensibly because of cost and operational issues, it is not difficult to see how the level of bilateral coordination to which Washington and Tokyo have grown accustomed under Abe might abate under a new administration.

Still, U.S.-Japan alliance proponents have many reasons to be optimistic. Despite Abe and his inner circle’s long monopoly over key leadership positions, the LDP boasts a deep roster of policymaking and diplomatic expertise. Abe’s successor will have outsized shoes to fill — not only as a political and bureaucratic manager, but also as a foreign policy strategist. But while it will take time for Japan’s next significant prime minister to emerge, preliminary reports indicate that the LDP’s preference for Abe’s immediate successor may be a conservative pick, someone who will apply a steady hand while the party prepares for a proper presidential election in September 2021.

Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a nonresident fellow at Pacific Forum in Hawaii. Follow him on Twitter @EISilverberg.

Charles Crabtree is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. Follow him on Twitter @cdcrabtree.