On 5 December 2016, Shizo Abe became the fourth longest serving prime minister in the postwar Japan after Eisaku Sato, Shigeru Yoshida, and Junichiro Koizumi. Before Abe became prime minister for the second time in December 2012, six prime ministers stayed in power only around one year respectively. Abe won two lower house elections and two upper house elections since December 2012 until July 2016. This is an unprecedented record.
Prime Minister Abe visited 66 countries and regions in total in the last four years. In September 2014, Abe's visits to foreign countries outnumbered all his previous prime ministers. His name is now well known to many people in the world, and he can now enjoy friendly personal relationship with many foreign leaders including President-Elect Donald Trump whom Abe met on 17 November. Prime Minister Abe met with President Vladimir Putin 16 times including his most recent meeting in Yamaguchi on 15 and 16 December.
In addition, Fumio Kishida is currently the longest serving foreign minister among the G7 countries. This naturally means that Kishida can enjoy a larger influence among the seven foreign ministers, as he knows every foreign policy agendas of the last four years. All of these might sound rather unfamiliar, as 16 prime ministers served in Japan in the last 17 years.
However, the length itself is not so important. Abe made many records in foreign and security policy. Prime Minister Abe published Japan's first National Security Strategy in December 2013, and established Japan's National Security Council in the same month. These make it possible to present nationally coordinated long-term strategy. Inter-departmental rivalry often hampered smooth policy-making process in Japan. Besides, the security bills which were passed in September 2015 broaden Japan's security activities in international arena. Japan's government named this as "proactive contribution to peace".
Japan can now exercise collective self-defense right to a limited extent. Together with new defense guidelines between Japan and the US, Japan's Self Defense Forces can now more deeply collaborate with U.S. Armed Forces. At the same time, Japanese government under Abe's Cabinet has been expanding security cooperation with like-minded countries, such as Australia, India, the UK and France. To sum up, Japan now presents much higher profile in international politics.
How will Japan's new foreign and security policy change strategic relations in East Asia? It is often said that Abe's aim is to contain China by creating a coalition which encircles China. This is simply wrong, as the rise of China has been the basis of Japan's economic growth. China is Japan's biggest trading partner, and Japan has been the biggest provider of both ODA and FDI in sum. As the national interests of the second and the third biggest economic powers are closely tied, two governments agreed on establishing "Mutually Beneficial Relationships based on Common Strategic Interests" at the time of the first Abe's Cabinet. In November 2014, two governments elevated the bilateral relationships based on newly agreed "Four Points Principles".
Abe's foreign policy has been producing many fruits. Can Japan be complacent in its diplomacy under Prime Minister Abe? Perhaps no. Japan's main foreign policy aim has been to consolidate rule-based liberal international order, as Japan has clear limit in its military power. The rule of law in international community is, therefore, an important basis for Japan's foreign policy. However, China's denial of the ICJ's ruling on the South China Sea, and Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 together with Donald Trump's victory in the US Presidential election in 2016 seriously caused serious unpredictability and anxiety in the future of liberal international order.
The future of Northeast Asian regional order also seems uncertain. North Korea has repeatedly caused tensions in this region, and China's military buildup accelerates arms race in Asia. China's assertive maritime activities make regional cooperation more difficult. However, as the probability of the ratification of the TPP by all the signatories now seem unlikely, Japan's need to enhance regional economic cooperation particularly within the framework of the China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trilateral cooperation.
Japan's international influence becomes salient, as the other major powers need to focus on domestic issues in the coming years. It takes time to fulfill all the necessary political appointments in the new US administration under President Trump. The UK needs to waste huge amount of financial and human resources to exit from the largest market in the world. France and Germany will enter into election year in 2017. Chinese Communist Party will replace five out of seven Politburo members in 2017. Though Japan's international influence is limited, Prime Minister Abe continues to be a key player among the G7 countries in 2017 in responding to international crises which we will perhaps see in the coming years.
Yuichi Hosoya, Professor of International Politics, Keio University