Friday August 19, 2022

Abe: an atypical legacy

July 13, 2022

The late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated last week by an ex-serviceman, was undoubtedly the most atypical prime ministers in recent political history. Abe had many qualities that made him stand out among the big club of Japanese premiers. Since 1885 when Ito Hirobumi took charge as the first prime minister, Japan has seen 64 prime ministers (including those who have served more than once). This means that the average tenure of a Japanese premier is around two years.

Apart from the perpetually fractionated National Diet – Japan’s parliament – which always remains divided between small splinter and pressure groups, two other factors are responsible for this 137-year-old game of power. One, the strong and well-entrenched traditions of Japanese corporate culture, which requires the CEO of a company to quit his job in case a scandal erupts that directly or indirectly affects the future of the organization, has drastically influenced the Japanese political system where a prime minister is expected to leave office even if a minor scandal affects his government. Another major tradition is a decline in public approval. When the approval rating of a Japanese prime minister falls below 30 per cent, the prime minister is expected to tender his/her resignation.

These two major factors have led to premature departures of quite a few Japanese prime ministers, but Abe, despite being a strong advocate of preservation of traditional values in all spheres of Japanese political and social culture, broke the tradition of ‘political self-sacrifice’ many times.

During his two stints, Abe was haunted by innumerable scandals about nepotism and misuse of authority to force bureaucrats to sometimes bypass several rules and regulations. But he never caved into these scandals and kept working without being affected. However, with the unfortunate and shocking assassination of Shinzo Abe, the most impactful chapter of Japanese politics in the post-World War II era has come to an abrupt end. But it has also given birth to several pricking questions on the impact of his legacy on Japan’s economic and foreign policies in the coming days – and decades.

For a long period, from the end of World War II to the start of this millennium, the Yoshida doctrine tightly wrapped the strategic intent of Japanese policies. Shigeru Yoshida, the first postwar Japanese prime minister, was the chief architect of the doctrine, which influenced the subsequent generations of the Japanese political leadership to focus on economic development, refrain from militarizing, and adhere to the pacifist constitution.

Shinzo Abe was the first Japanese leader who made a conscious effort to put Japan on a different trajectory, away from the Yoshida doctrine, in the domain of economic and foreign policies. His signature three-pronged economic policy ‘Abenomics’ – monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms – and his visibly hawkish approach in the domain of defence and foreign policy are likely to have deep and lasting imprints on the Japanese outlook for many decades.

Unlike his recent predecessors, who did not have any clout to rein in their own parties, Abe had a much-stronger control over different factions of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) within as well as outside the Diet. There is no denying that most of Abe’s predecessors since 1990, with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi, who had a relatively long run from 2001 to 2006, failed to make their presence felt in the domain of international politics because of their short stints.

Abe, in contrast, was a different kind of powerbroker, and he used his long tenure to increase his visibility in the global arena. During his eight-year-long stint, the longest for any Japanese PM in the post-war period, he strived to make tangible changes in the pacifist constitution that prohibits the country from acquiring military forces. This was in reaction to China’s growing influence in the East China Sea and South China Sea and simmering territorial disputes with Beijing.

Factually speaking, QUAD, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising Japan, the US, Australia and India, was practically his brain-child to keep a check on the Chinese expansionism in the Asia Pacific and Indo-Pacific - another term coined by him in his 2007 speech to the Indian parliament to describe the single strategic space that stretches from the Asia Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

The China factor was quite dominant in his foreign policy. Apart from joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Abe played a pivotal role in strengthening partnerships and cooperation with regional powers like India, Malaysia and Vietnam and non-regional players like Britain and the EU to ensure peace and stability in the region. Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) was a major plank of his efforts to counterbalance the ever-growing Chinese political influence in the region.

Despite taking retirement from the premiership and party leadership due to his personal health issues, his weighty presence was still quite palpable in Japanese politics and decision-making. His successor, Fumio Kishida, who was groomed by him for a long time as his defence and foreign minister in two different stints, despite having a different and rather dovish approach in the foreign policy, is not expected to deviate from the basic elements of the Abe doctrine. Even though he refrains from openly naming China in his statements and believes in ‘humane diplomacy’, his commitment and passion towards the QUAD and the FOIP is serious.

Last month, at the Shangri-La Dialogue annual gathering in Singapore, Kishida reiterated the version of the Abe doctrine with regard to the Indo-Pacific as the main reference point of his operative strategic frame and declared it as the main nucleus of the global economy in the coming days. Kishida’s soft approach towards China does not mean that there will be a shift in the Japanese foreign policy.

It is also true that Kishida, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, seriously rebutted Abe’s advocacy for hosting US nuclear weapons as a deterrent. But this only reflects the difference of opinion in healthy democracies. It is also true that he has a soft corner for the middle class and wants to expand it by introducing wealth-redistributive policies, but he is not likely to drift away from the fulcrum of the Abe doctrine. Such deviations are natural, and they are always observed with the change of personalities at the helm of affairs.

For the last two decades, Shinzo Abe had been the most dominant figure in Japanese politics, and his footprints will remain visible for at least two more decades. His influence on the Japanese is so great that it will take years for successive political leaderships to change the trajectory of Japanese politics away from the Abe doctrine.

The writer is a freelance contributor.