Japanese media coverage of late has been saturated with all-things Imperial succession. From the issuance of drivers licences to Prime Ministerial rounds of golf, just about every event that took place after of the ascension of a new Emperor to the Chrysanthemum Throne has been framed as a ‘first’ of the new era of Reiwa. However, the Imperial abdication-ascension is not the only succession story that Japan watchers ought to be thinking about, for an important political succession issue has recently resurfaced
Last month, the Yomiuri Shimbun ran an article discussing the sudden entry of Yoshihide Suga, the government’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, into the race to eventually succeed the Prime Minister and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Shinzō Abe. Public commentary has tended to favour former Abe cabinet ministers Shigeru Ishiba (defence) and Fumio Kishida (foreign affairs) as leading the replacement race, though names such as Taro Kono (current foreign minister) and Totomi Inada (former defence minister) have also surfaced.
Over the last month, however, Suga has emerged as a ‘dark horse’ - surprising given the fact that he heads no particular LDP faction (though he has become somewhat of a powerbroker). While his visit to Washington appears to have been a ‘safe’ rather than triumphant diplomatic debut, it is nevertheless extremely rare for Chief Cabinet Ministers to travel abroad, a fact which has only further magnified Suga’s public profile. Senior LDP party members are already throwing their weight in behind him as a “leading candidate” for the Premiership.
However, Suga’s visit to the US alludes to an issue of fundamental importance that ought to underpin the succession debate. Shinzō Abe has exerted extensive influence over the direction of Japan’s foreign and security policies since 2012, particularly its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’, and has enjoyed immense and sustained political (though not always public) support while doing so. Party backing, bureaucratic obedience and personal charm, however, are not necessarily guaranteed for the next in line, meaning that there could be a lot at stake for Japan’s international status when a power transfer does eventuate. If Brad Glosserman’s thesis that Abe represents ‘Peak Japan’ is to be defied, a lot will rest on the shoulders of Japan’s next Prime Minister, whoever that may be.
Abe is presently serving an unprecedented third term in Japan’s highest office, having successfully altered LDP party rules and secured a majority vote in last September’s party leadership ballot. Abe’s staying power is a far cry from the revolving-door Prime Ministership between 2006 and 2012. It is that sort of political longevity that has allowed him to lead a near revolution in Japanese foreign policy.
Unsurprisingly, many of the noteworthy developments in contemporary Japanese foreign and security policies have been masterminded and implemented under Abe’s watch. The concepts of an ‘Arc of Freedom and Prosperity’ (2007), the ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ (2007), and the ‘Democratic Security Diamond’ (2012), each has which its roots in an Abe administration, might collectively be considered the intellectual genealogy of both the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ concept. This is a pillar that now clearly informs the strategies of key partners in Australia, India and the United States.
Abe has also overseen a deepening of the US-Japan alliance, extracting from Washington a commitment to protect the Senkaku Islands in 2014, redefining the geographical scope of the Japan-US Security Guidelines in 2015, and joining US military exercises with third parties such as India and South Korea. Japan has also become a far more active and visible player across the region, extending funding to key infrastructure projects from the South Pacific to Africa, assisting Southeast Asian partners like Vietnam in developing their maritime security capacity, and generally assuming the mantle of liberal trade champion after the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In all of this, Abe’s ability to forge strong interpersonal relationships with the leaders of key Indo-Pacific nations has been crucial. For example, his ‘bromance’ with re-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been indispensable in the positive trajectory of Japan-India relations. Abe also enjoyed a strong relationship with former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and by all appearances has a functionally productive relationship with successor Scott Morrison, overseeing an acceleration in the two countries’ convergence as quasi allies.
Most importantly, Abe has expertly managed his relationship with US President Donald Trump through personal flattery (including not not nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize nominations), courting the Trump family, and pursuing diplomacy by the golf club. Successfully broadening the US President's impression of bilateral relations beyond the costs of forward military deployments and trade balance sheets, Abe has impressed to the extent that many other world leaders now turn to Japan for advice in managing their own relationships with the White House.
The above provides a suitably broad, but by no means comprehensive, snapshot of Abe’s decisive hand in formulating and prosecuting an distinctly activist foreign policy. What is unclear, however, is whether any of his potential successors would be able or willing to sustain that trajectory, let alone skilfully manage key relationships or keep the bureaucracy and LDP cabinet in line. Indeed, as Keith Johnson wrote for Foreign Policy in February 2018, “it’s not clear how deep his [Abe’s] more muscular vision of Japan’s place in the world has penetrated the country’s political culture”, and there is no compelling evidence to suggest that this has changed. It’s not as if Abe has finished the job, either. Washington’s adoption of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept may have initially been seen as an endorsement, but by some accounts Japan’s reluctance to fully take ownership of the strategy’s branding has allowed the Trump administration to define it largely in terms of Great Power competition. This has complicated Japan’s efforts to both cooperate and compete with China’s Belt-Road Initiative, as well as court influence amongst regional players who are wary of being compelled to take sides. While Abe may yet solve these lingering issues, it is unclear whether a successor could, or would.
Evidently, whoever Japan’s next Prime Minister turns out to be will have big shoes to fill. Abe’s leadership qualities, intellect, personal drive and political staying power in particular have been instrumental in enhancing Japan’s international standing and influence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Yet it is his impending departure that may truly illuminate his importance.
Tom Corben is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.