Japan will soon have a new prime minister. This used to seem like an annual occurrence, but it has not happened for nearly eight years since Shinzo Abe capped his unlikely political comeback by leading the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a general election victory in December 2012. That victory ended a rare stint out of power for the LDP, which has dominated Japan’s political scene for sixty of the past sixty-five years. To almost everyone’s surprise, Abe went on to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in history, until a chronic health ailment forced him this month to step down.
Abe’s unexpected resignation set off a frenzy of lobbying among the LDP’s factional groups, who will have an outsized role in choosing the party’s next leader on September 14 and—by virtue of its majority within the parliament—Japan’s next prime minister. The subsequent personnel and policy changes will likely be subtle in the short term, because the favorite to replace Abe is his long-time right-hand man, Yoshihide Suga. But this quick transition belies an important potential turning point in Japanese politics and foreign policy that offers opportunities and pitfalls for Tokyo and Washington. The United States has some ability to nudge developments in a positive direction for the alliance if it pays proper attention, but the most important variables are outside of its control.
A central question is whether or not the LDP has become a more cohesive party that can adapt effectively to the modern political era. This era features a prime minister’s office empowered by reforms in the early 2000s and more recently under Abe, technological changes that are creating new patterns of communication and an imperative to support national innovation, and major geopolitical shifts including a much more powerful, assertive China and a relatively weaker ally in the United States. Japan needs continued strong and active leadership after Abe, but it is not clear yet if the LDP can deliver. The contentious jockeying among LDP power brokers and would-be candidates suggests they might not rally behind Suga the way they did for Abe.
Before Abe reentered the scene in 2012, Japanese prime ministers were famous for quick exits. In fact, with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi in 2001, Japan’s last nine prime ministers (from 1998 to 2012) all saw their public support plummet within mere months of taking office. With their extended tenures, Koizumi and Abe demonstrated how a modern Japanese prime minister could carry out a policy agenda. Abe in particular had a big impact on the country’s foreign policy. He charted a more assertive and independent path for Japan, while still reinforcing its alliance with the United States and expanding avenues of bilateral coordination.
Abe reoriented Japanese security and economic policy in the face of a rising, assertive China. This strategic imperative was his lodestar. He expanded security cooperation and other forms of strategic collaboration with Australia, India, France, the United Kingdom, Southeast Asia, among others. Abe played a lead role in resurrecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal after U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal, a separate trade agreement with the European Union, and a soon-to-be concluded deal with the UK.
Even as Abe diversified Japanese foreign policy, he invested consistently in its alliance with the United States, pushing through new legislation in 2015 that allowed for limited collective self-defense and closer integration between Japanese and U.S. forces. Abe also championed a new law that strengthened the government’s hand in protecting state secrets, making it easier to share classified information with the United States. Many of these decisions were not popular in Japan, but Abe and his team believed they were strategically important.
Rounding out Abe’s foreign policy, he was stubbornly persistent in futile attempts to negotiate the return of islands seized by the Soviet Union after World War II, as part of a potential peace treaty with Russia. Abe showed less doggedness on relations with South Korea, and bilateral ties with Seoul have become more fragile than they have been in half a century. Japan’s next prime minister can deemphasize the appeal to Moscow, but improving Tokyo’s relationship with Seoul will be one of his greatest foreign policy challenges, one that is intertwined with the other priorities of managing affairs with China and the United States.
If Suga is elected this month as expected, he will use the remaining year of Abe’s term as an audition to be the LDP’s leader for a national election next fall. Japan’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be his top priority, but this should not come at the expense of foreign policy. Abe’s successful foreign policy record hangs in the balance, and a revolving door of prime ministers would undermine Japan’s vital support for multilateral institutions and its more proactive and diversified bilateral diplomacy.
Japan’s next prime minister needs to further build the capacity of the National Security Council and Cabinet Secretariat to help coordinate policy responses to complex geopolitical challenges that involve technology, security, and economics. At times he will need to make the political case for unpopular decisions that might involve Japan playing a more assertive international role or strengthening government protections on sensitive technologies.
U.S. policymakers can support this process, and an early test will be reconfiguring their alliance plan for enhanced missile defense in Japan to deal with more sophisticated threats from North Korea and China. The Trump administration can also take a more nuanced and coordinated approach with its economic pressure on China, so that Tokyo does not have to sacrifice so much in its relationship with Beijing while promoting its own economic recovery. Japan’s new prime minister can also use this moment to explore reinvigorating trilateral cooperation with China and South Korea as a supplement to delicate bilateral relations amid an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry.
The traditional political role of the LDP has been to balance interests within the country and promote growth as equitably—and with as much consensus—as possible. Prime ministers acted more like committee chairs rather than chief executive officers, and foreign policy was often a secondary concern with strategy delegated to professionals. But today Japan needs a leader to push forward on three fronts including maintaining its alliance with the United States, finding a stable equilibrium with China that does not compromise Japanese interests or principles, and building a coalition with other nations in case one or both of those first two goals proves too difficult.
The LDP can carry on ably in the short term under Suga or any of his competitors, but a larger challenge is maintaining the discipline and solidarity the party showed during Abe’s tenure. The longtime prime minister succeeded in part due to his strong leadership, the consistent and capable team around him, and the recent memory of being voted out of power in 2009. As that memory fades, a more collective and contentious governing style could reemerge, focused on placating potential rivals and the lowest common denominator. In this sense, a stronger political opposition could help Japan stay vibrant by focusing policymakers on the national interest. Overall, robust leadership and an active, generous Japan on the global stage can be a positive for the world at a critical time in history.
James L. Schoff is a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest working paper is “U.S.-Japan Technology Policy Coordination: Balancing Technonationalism With a Globalized World.”