Abe’s legacy was his multinational reach-out, his warm and informal friendly ties and his personal relationships with PM Modi in India, President Donald Trump of US and even Xi Jinping.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “unexpected and sudden” resignation due to health reasons has left world capitals baffled, including New Delhi, which shares a deep relationship with Tokyo, much of which is credited to the resigning Premier’s personal bond with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The picture-perfect frames of Modi-Abe Ganga-aarti in Varanasi and the road show in Ahmedabad bear testimony to the ties these two leaders share.
India’s surge in the East and its growing role and relevance in the Quad and in regional security in Asia-Pacific has a lot to do with Abe-Modi’s personal chemistry and ties beyond political office’s protocols. Insiders have already started analysing if the resignation will leave its mark on New Delhi-Tokyo video-link summit scheduled for next month. The proposed summit is significant for India, given the diplomatic backdrop of the recent border standoff in Galwan Valley at the LAC and China’s aggression in parts of the Indo-Pacific region.
PM Modi took to Twitter to wish Abe a speedy recovery. “Pained to hear about your ill health, my dear friend @AbeShinzo. In recent years, with your wise leadership and personal commitment, the India-Japan partnership has become deeper and stronger than ever before. I wish and pray for your speedy recovery,” he tweeted.
While government sources say the diplomatic business between Tokyo and New Delhi will be “as usual with minimal effect”, but top diplomacy and strategic affairs experts claim, “India will have to make more efforts under the new PM in Japan. The successor will not be that forthcoming and the immediate regional interests prevail over external diplomatic influences.”
And that will be also applicable to other parts of the world and to many policies Abe initiated.
Experts are compelled to look into the future of global diplomacy and the regional security balance in Asia, which Tokyo under its longest serving Premier enjoyed being a pivot of. Abe’s legacy was his multinational reach-out, his warm and informal friendly ties and his personal relationships with PM Modi in India, President Donald Trump of US and even Xi Jinping of China, as he was bold enough to open doors of rapprochement with Beijing, something he could manage in Tokyo’s political circles.
Can Tokyo afford to abandon Abe’s legacy so fast? Not really, but changes will be there in Japan’s foreign policy and its role in the emerging geo-political dynamics, says Professor Kent Calder, Director in School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Johns Hopkins University.
“Implications for East Asian geo-political dynamics will depend on Abe’s successor, but will likely defuse tensions with South Korea to some degree. The next PM will most likely not have as long a tenure as Abe’s, so less room and ability to establish relationships and project Japanese influence. The next PM may not be as global. India will need to reach out, as post-Abe Japan will not be as reflexively interested in cooperation with India. Some possibility of Abe’s influence continuing, however, exists if Fumio Kishida becomes Abe’s successor, as the two are close and Kishida is deferential to Abe,” Professor Calder, an expert in East Asian affairs, told The Sunday Guardian.
Professor Mike Mochizuki of Elliott School of International affairs in George Washington University says, “PM Abe’s resignation will not dramatically change the current geo-political dynamics. Japan under Abe’s successor, who will certainly come from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, will continue to strengthen the alliance with the United States, deepen relations with countries in East Asia and beyond that share Japan’s basic values and interests, and pursue rapprochement with China.”
There, however, might be changes in two areas, says Professor Mochizuki, an expert in East Asian security: “First, in the absence of the close personal ties between Abe and Putin, achieving a breakthrough in Japan-Russia relations that would culminate in a Russo-Japanese Peace Treaty will become difficult. Second, given Abe’s critical views of South Korea regarding history-related issues, the leadership change in Japan might present an opportunity to improve relations between Japan and South Korea.”
There are many worries cast on Japan-US relations too. Calder says, “Cooperation may not be as close between Japan and the US. Abe was good at deflecting US pressures, as he played golf, and got along well personally with Trump. The US was far harder on the Koreans on trade and burden-sharing. If Trump is not re-elected, the disappearance of Abe will not matter so much.”
Mochizuki, an expert on US-Japan alliance says, “Because Abe cultivated close personal ties with President Trump, he succeeded in deflecting some of Trump’s most unreasonable views and demands regarding Japan and the US-Japan alliance. His successor is unlikely to be able to replicate this rapport with President Trump.” However, the GWU professor added, “But if Joe Biden is elected President in November, the need for such rapport will disappear. Irrespective of who is elected US President in November, Tokyo and Washington will face the enormous challenge of coordinating and harmonising policies toward China and North Korea. Although Japan and the United States share common strategic interests, they have different priorities and approaches. Japan will also try to entice the United States re-embrace regional multilateral processes regarding trade and investment.”
However, there are some like Abraham Denmark, Director of Asia Center in Woodrow Wilson Center, hopeful that US-Japan alliance will be strong as ever. Reacting to the resignation, Denmark tweeted: “Abe Shinzo’s resignation will have major implications not just for Japan itself, but also for the rest of East Asia and for the United States. It is unclear who will succeed him, but each likely candidate is a solid supporter of the US-Japan Alliance.”
The future of Quad, given the threat of China and the new security alliances emerging between Beijing and Moscow, appears to be maintaining its significance and relevance in the Indo-Pacific under the new Japanese leadership. As Professor Calder rightly points out: “The future of the Quad under Trump-Abe-Morrison-Modi was the perfect configuration, but it is rooted in the national interest of all four, so will likely be enduring in the post-pandemic age of a rising China. All likely Abe successors (Kishida, Ishiba, Kono, Aso, Suga) see the Quad as attractive, as they are concerned about the security of the sea lanes that provide the key linkage for Maritime Asia.”
Here India too gets the due significance in Tokyo’s regional diplomacy due to the Quad and it is hoped that business remains as usual. New Delhi’s recent blueprint for ensuring tech-enabled maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region and its involvement through comprehensive security and defence partnership with regional stakeholders will be a factor to help thwart China’s “arbitrary expansion”. However, Professor Mochizuki feels that the Quad’s character may see a minor change. He told The Sunday Guardian: “Quad was one of Abe’s pet ideas, the concept itself will lose its most vigorous champion. Nevertheless, given the enormous geopolitical and geo-economic changes afoot—especially with the rise of China, Japan will inevitably want to strengthen relations with countries on China’s periphery—not just the Quad countries like Australia, India, and the United States. The purpose of this diplomacy is not to contain China, but rather to create a diplomatic infrastructure to restrain Chinese assertiveness and to encourage China to be a more responsible power in the region as its capabilities and influence increase.”
Mochizuki said Abe’s successor may face difficulty in maintaining Sino-Japanese rapprochement. “Although Abe was one of the most nationalistic Japanese Prime Ministers after World War II, and has been quite critical of China, he was also pragmatic and realistic enough to understand that stable and cooperative relations with China are important for regional peace and stability and Japan’s long-term prosperity. That’s why Abe took the bold step in early 2017 to pursue rapprochement with China, and Abe and Xi became surprising partners in this process. The Covid-19 pandemic, unfortunately, led to the postponement of Xi’s historic state visit to Japan. Some nationalists in Japan would like the Japanese government to cancel Xi’s state visit because of developments in Hong Kong and increasing tensions regarding the Senkaku Islands. Given his own nationalist credentials, Abe was able to fend off this pressure to rescind the invitation to Xi. Abe’s successor might have more difficulty in maintaining domestic public support in favour of a Sino-Japanese rapprochement,” Mochizuki said.
And from the point of Japan’s own internal dynamics, an experts like Mochizuki says, Abe’s “unfinished task—Abenomics” may face further challenges under his successors. “Although the loose monetary policy under Abenomics buoyed the Japanese stock market and restored a modicum of economic optimism, Abe was not able to address effectively the underlying structural causes of Japan’s lacklustre economic performance. Dealing with these structural factors like the shrinking and ageing population, constraints on innovation, economic and gender inequality, the growing national debt, and little improvement in labour productivity will be politically challenging. Strong leadership and an inspiring vision for Japan’s future will be necessary to overcome resistance from vested interests and to change societal and cultural norms,” said the GWU expert on politics and foreign relations.