By William L. Brooks, APP Senior Fellow, Adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He retired from the U.S. State Department in September 2009 after a 35-year career as a diplomat and research analyst. This article first appeared in the January 8, 2013 online Asahi Shimbun Asia & Japan Watch.
The return to power of the Liberal Democratic Party in the Dec. 16 Lower House election after three years of Democratic Party of Japan rule was more a voter repudiation of the DPJ's failed policies than an endorsement of the LDP's policy agenda.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, back in office for a second time, knows that if his party is to win the next election for the Upper House in July, he must regain the still-skeptical public's trust by quick and effective displays of policy energy.
Shinzo Abe at the Diet on Dec. 26 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
To do so, he has scoped out an ambitious agenda covering both domestic and diplomatic policy fronts, including repairing strained relations with China and South Korea, and reclaiming a robust alliance with the United States.
Washington appreciates such momentum, and hopes that political stability has finally returned to Japan. But there is keen awareness that Abe's Achilles' heel remains his controversial revisionist views on Japan's war history, which could come back to haunt him if not kept in check.
Abe's top priority now will be to revive the ailing Japanese economy by overcoming the country's long-standing deflation. He has promised a bold monetary policy that includes setting an inflation target, implementing qualitative fiscal stimulation measures in the public sector, and devising a growth strategy that encourages private investment.
He also intends to accelerate the reconstruction of areas in northern Japan devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, many of which remain desolate wastelands.
Having promised in the election campaign to "restore a reliable Japan-U.S. alliance," Abe intends to visit Washington as soon as possible for a summit meeting with President Barack Obama. He will seek to build a "relationship of trust" with the president, while reconfirming his administration's deep commitment to the bilateral alliance as the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy. In outlining his policy agenda, Abe will focus on such trouble spots as North Korea and China, and express his commitment to resolve a long-festering issue in Okinawa, the controversial relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to another part of the prefecture.
It is a tradition for a newly elected Japanese leader to make an obligatory journey early on to Washington, but this one has a particularly large significance to Abe.
The bilateral relationship was greatly strained during the three years of DPJ rule, particularly during Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's nine months in office starting in September 2009, and the LDP now wants to reclaim what it believes is its rightful place as the long-standing manager of the alliance. During his first term in office, Obama witnessed growing political instability in Japan, with Cabinets falling, prime ministers changing every year, and policy gridlock in the Diet. There is likely to be skepticism in Washington that the LDP's election and Abe's return to power is not more of the same.
It would indeed help boost bilateral ties if Abe can bring with him progress on commitments that the DPJ before him could not keep, such as the long-delayed decision on whether Japan will join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact. But at this juncture, Abe's initial encounter with Obama seems likely to be mainly statements of formal intentions rather than announcements of breakthroughs in pending issues.
Still, Abe's strategies for jump-starting the stalled economy, strengthening ties with the United States, and repairing deteriorating ties with China, South Korea and Russia will impress Washington. He also will please the Pentagon with his plans to enhance Japan's security posture in the region with an "integrated defense strategy" for the unified buildup of defense capabilities of the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces (SDF) based on long-range contingency scenarios.
Moreover, Abe has surrounded himself with a solid Cabinet filled with experienced policy experts, and he will tap the expertise of the bureaucracy and academia as needed. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in particular will assist Abe on the industrial policy front. His foreign and defense ministers both have experience in Okinawa policy and can be expected to lend their hands to resolving serious U.S. base issues with that prefecture.
Because the next election--this time for the Upper House--is to be held in July, Abe has little time to convince Japan's fickle electorate that his ambitious agenda, starting with bold fiscal and monetary measures to stimulate the economy, will be effective.
Another major challenge will be convincing his own party, let alone the public, to back Japan's participation in the TPP, something his DPJ predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, failed to achieve.
Abe may have to put the TPP issue on the back burner until after the July election, given the need to court the TPP-averse farm vote, but there seems to be little doubt in his mind that it is in Japan's national interests to join. His administration will seek exceptions in TPP talks for sensitive farm products such as rice and sugar, but there are signs that Abe aims to put in place a domestic program to make agriculture more competitive in the hope of easing the fears of farmers toward the TPP.
But at this stage, he will only be able to tell Obama that a final decision on the TPP is still a work in progress.
On China, Abe's strategy aims to improve ties from a position of diplomatic strength by bolstering "trust-based partnerships" with nations surrounding China, including India and Vietnam. India and Australia in particular are regarded as key components in Japan's regional security strategy, and Abe plans to develop trilateral relations involving the United States with each. He will also continue a theme developed during his first time in office of "value diplomacy," involving deepening ties with those countries that share the same values as Japan, such as on democracy, human rights and a market economy.
Abe's defense and security agenda, which includes the creation of a national security council, the elevation of the SDF to a national defense force by amending the Constitution, and recognition of Japan's right to collective self-defense, will be welcomed in Washington. The result would be a Japan that is more willing than ever to shoulder greater responsibilities in the alliance for the defense of the homeland.
What worries Washington, though, are Abe's oft-cited hawkish remarks on historical issues, such as denying that the Japanese military was involved with the "comfort women" issue, the forced recruitment of women to provide sex for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Abe hinted during the campaign that he might revise a 1993 official statement of apology to the women coerced into such service.
Despite assurances by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga that the Kono statement will be honored, Abe may still feel inclined to pursue his earlier vow. If he does so, the move would be seen as denying history, and it could set off new rows with China and South Korea, not to mention perplex Americans.
Such a scenario need not occur, though. Despite his revisionist view of history, Abe during his first term refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, though he was not as circumspect on the issue of comfort women. This time, because he has set a high-priority goal of repairing relations with Japan's Asian neighbors as in the national interest, it seems unlikely he will want to reopen old historical wounds. He may judge in the end that history is best left to historians and not to politicians to revise.