Shinzo Abe (1954-2022)

I was shocked and saddened to learn that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated at a political event Abe was a towering figure in Japanese politics. The longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history. His accomplishments through the nine years he was in office have significantly shaped Japan’s trajectory for the coming decade at least.

Abe reestablished Japan’s position of prominence on the world stage economically and geopolitically. Under his leadership, Japan reinterpreted the pacifism-centered nature of its constitution. He was convinced Japan had to do more in order to counter China’s growing strength and influence in the Western Pacific. Along with leading the charge to change the constitution, Abe also championed a major defense buildup. This was also aimed at countering China’s power.

He was a nationalist at heart who refused to tread lightly when it came to Japan’s World War II history. In this regard he was the polar opposite of most Japanese prime ministers since 1945. Many of his predecessors apologized profusely to China and South Korea for Japan’s horrid actions and crimes against its people in the war. Abe did not disregard Japan’s past actions, however, he did not dwell on them profusely. The result was a chilly relationship with erstwhile ally South Korea and a deep freeze with the People’s Republic of China.

China has not shed a tear for Abe’s passing. Chinese social media has been filled with celebratory posts and comments. The South Korean people have been somewhat more subdued, but there is little sadness for Abe across the Sea of Japan.

Shinzo Abe Steps Down Over Health Concerns

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced he will be stepping down in the near future due to a worsening intestinal condition. Abe, who has held his position since 2012 will stay in office until a successor is chosen. That task will probably be completed in the coming weeks. The Liberal Democratic Party, of which Abe is a member, controls a majority in the Diet and has the power to make the choice.

Abe leaves as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. His resignation will bring about significant ramifications for Japan, East Asia, US foreign policies, and defense strategies in the region. Abe left his stamp on Japan. A conservative nationalist, he came to power promising to kickstart Japan’s near-flatlining economy at the time, and counter China through assertive foreign policy, and strengthened Japanese military. “I’ve realized that Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific,” he said during an interview in 2013, not long after taking power. “There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law. It shouldn’t take that path, and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view.”

Abe sought, and cultivated closer ties with the United States during his time as prime minister. He was the first foreign leader to visit President Trump after the 2016 election. Although the two leaders differed on trade issues, and Japan shouldering some of the cost of stationing 50,000 US troops in its country, countering China’s rising power was an area where the two leaders found common ground.

As the news of the prime minister’s resignation spreads around Asia it will be interesting to see how China responds. With Abe now a lame duck for the next few weeks, will Beijing decide the time is right to challenge Japan over the Senkaku Islands perhaps?

Caught Red-Handed

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Images and video released by the US military directly link Iran to the attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman yesterday. Iran, of course, has rejected the allegations, yet the evidence obtained and released by the US is quite damning. The video, taken by a US Navy aircraft, clearly shows an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the MT Kokuka Courageous and crewmen removed an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of the tanker before departing. Photos taken earlier, also released by the US military show the limpet mine attached to the ship’s hull.

The attacks on the oil tankers, one of which is owned by a Japanese company, came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran. This brings the timing of events into question, leading to the sneaking suspicion that Iran launched the tanker attacks during the meeting to create an alibi of sorts. After all, would Iran be foolish enough to attack a Japanese-owned oil tanker at the same time Japan’s leader is visiting the country for talks? Iran is hoping the world thinks the premise is absurd.

The big question for now is: what will the US response be? With the evidence in its possession, Washington can make a solid case to the UN, and the world and put Iran in a vulnerable position in the eyes of the world. Unfortunately, such action will likely do nothing to change the present formula in the Persian Gulf. Iran is lashing out in order to persuade the US to roll back the suffocating economic sanctions now in place. Tehran has taken a page from its old playbook and is using attacks on oil tankers to gain leverage over the US and demonstrate to the world the type of economic disruption Iran can bring to oil markets, and the global economy as a whole.

That is the theory at least.

In the next post we’ll discuss what form a possible US military response could take, and compare the similarities between events in the Persian Gulf area now and what took place there in 1987.

Japan-South Korea Relations Simmer

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The relationship between Japan, and South Korea is best described as ‘allies and economic partners by necessity and circumstance.’ Remove nuclear-armed North Korea, and an increasingly powerful China from the equation and it is unlikely Tokyo and Seoul would even be civil enough to give each other the time of day. The geopolitical, and economic realities of the present demand the two states work together on a variety of issues. This does not mean either one has to like it, however.

The two nations share a troubled history. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and ruled the peninsula until its defeat in 1945. During the period of colonial rule, the Japanese mistreated and exploited Korean citizens. The two most notorious examples of this abuse are found in the wartime labor practices, and the use of Korean females as ‘comfort women.’ These practices reveal that Japan seemingly enslaved the Korean populace during World War II to support its war effort.

These points have continued to dog Japanese-South Korean relations for decades, from the end of World War II up to the present day. Even though the two nations normalized relations in 1965, there was always a layer of tension right beneath the surface. Periodically, that tension has boiled over and set back the relationship for a period of months, or even years.

At present, Japan-South Korean relations have deteriorated to their lowest point since the 1960s. Tensions were raised considerably by an incident in December, 2018 when a South Korean destroyer locked its radar onto a Japanese P-1 patrol aircraft. Both sides disagree on the series of events that took place, and the context. Nevertheless, the disagreement has escalated and pushed the historical disputes mentioned earlier to the forefront once more.

With a US-North Korean summit approaching, and China’s economic troubles raising concerns, this is hardly the ideal time for two of the most stable nations in the region to be at odds. Even more so, this is not the time for two of the United States’ closest allies in the Western Pacific to  be distracted. Not surprisingly, some observers, and journalists have laid the blame for the current Japan-South Korea troubles on the White House. While it is true that the Trump administration’s handling of US allies has been very different from his predecessor, blaming the White House is an empty-headed move motivated by politics.

Still, Washington will have to step in sooner or later if relations do not improve. The US needs to play the role of a concerned friend, or  mediator instead of choosing a side. There is simply too much at stake in the region for two of America’s closest allies to be adding to the tension, and instability that’s already present.

Japan and Australia Strengthen Defense & Economic Ties

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Japan and Australia took steps last week to strengthen their defense ties, and deepen relations at a time when concern about China’s growing strength in the region is rising. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison met on Friday in Darwin, the northern Australian city that was bombed by the Japanese during World War II. The two leaders visited a war memorial there and paid tribute to the war’s casualties.

Abe’s one-day visit gave the leaders the opportunity to present a united front for their shared vision of promoting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,  the rule of international law and continuing infrastructure projects from Asia to Africa.. It was also a sign of the success the United States is having in forging an alliance in the Indo-Pacific region to act as a counterbalance to China’s increasing influence and power.

Some television pundits, and academics think otherwise, and made their opinions known over the weekend. They believe the tightening of relations between Japan and Australia is an indicator that America’s traditional allies in the region are coming together in the face of a rising China, and an unpredictable US president who might not be there to help  when the chips are down.

The Trump administration’s foreign policy record since January 2017 proves their theory holds no water. From the beginning of his term, President Trump has adopted a firm position on China and acted on it. He has tackled the North Korea nuclear crisis head on. Although real progress has been slow in coming, Trump’s efforts have things moving in the right direction for the first time in over a decade. Regarding America’s allies in the region, Trump has openly engaged Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other friendly nations in the Western Pacific. He has also moved towards closer relations with India, recognizing the South Asia nation as a natural equalizer to China.

It has taken a long time, but Western Pacific nations are finally recognizing the potential threat China poses to their interests, and to their sovereignty. Expect to see relations between Japan and Australia continue growing closer, and similar interactions involving South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines will likely be seen in the near future.