Abe leaves a lasting legacy


In politics, change of face usually brings ‘change’ in the basic fabric and tenor of existing trends, however, this is not likely to happen in Japanese politics. Indubitably, 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, while giving birth to several pricking questions pertaining to the longevity of impact of his legacy on the texture of Japanese economic and foreign policies in the coming days – and decades.

For a very 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, first postwar Japanese Prime Minister, was the chief architect of the doctrine which influenced subsequent generations of the Japanese political leadership to focus on the economic development, refrain from militarising 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 policy. 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 imprints on the Japanese outlook for many decades.

During his eight-year stint, the longest for any Japanese PM in the post-war period, in responseto China’s growing influence in the East and South China Sea and simmering territorial disputes between Beijing, he strived to make tangible changes in the pacifist constitution that prohibits the country from acquiring military forces.Factually speaking, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) comprising Japan, the US, Australia and India, was practically his brainchild to keep a check on the Chinese assertiveness in the Asia pacific and Indo-Pacific – another term coined by him in his 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament to describe the strategic space that stretches from Asia-pacific to the Indian Ocean.

The China factor was quite dominant in his foreign policy. Apart from joining Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Abe played a pivotal role in strengthening the partnerships and cooperation with the regional powers like India, Indonesia and Vietnam and non-regional players like Britain and the EU to ensure peace and stability in the region. In fact, Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) was the 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 reasons, his weighty presence was still quite palpable in Japanese politics and decision making.

His successor, Fumio Kishida, who was groomed by Abe for a long time as his Defence and Foreign Minister in two different stints, despite having different and rather dovish approach in the foreign policy, is not expected to deviate from the basic elements of the Abe doctrine. Yes, he desists from openly naming China in his statements, and he believes in ‘humane diplomacy’, but 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 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.

Certainly, Kishida is not a China hawk at all, however, it does not mean that we should expect any tangible shift in the spectrum of the Japanese foreign policy. It is also true that Kishida, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, seriously rebutted Abe’s advocacy for hosting the US nuclear weapons as deterrent and it is also true that he has a soft corner for the middle class and wants to expand it by introducing the 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.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, despite being the leader of the moderate Kochikai faction with the ruling LDP party, also has close affiliation with the parliamentary league of the ultra-conservative and nationalist organisation Nippon Kaigi, is generally considered to be a centrist politician who is striving to establish a new form of capitalism to reduce income disparity. He fully supports the notion that benefits of growth should not be confinedto one section of the society and the system cannot sustain longer unless all the stakeholders are benefited from it.

The paradigm shift in the Japanese foreign policy was brought about by Shinzo Abe through his excessive ‘China focus’ and he simply transformed the way the Japanese public looks at regional security and foreign policy in general. Another major contribution of Abe was to use his personal influence to deepen the relationship of Tokyo with the ASEAN capitals. He was used to regularly visit the ASEAN countries, sometime without any tangible agenda, in a direct effort to raise his country’s profile and international presence.

He was very successful in establishing Japan as the mainstream player in Indo-Pacific security matters. For the last two decades, Shinzo Abe was perhaps the most dominant figure in Japanese politicsand his footprints will be seen at least for two more decades. He has influenced the mindset of the Japanese so much that it will take years for the successive political leadership to change the trajectory of Japanese politics away from the Abe doctrine.