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.
With US President Joe Biden heading to Asia today, the focus of the US government will pivot away from the war in Ukraine and Europe for the first time in months. Even though the pivot will be temporary, Biden’s trip to Japan and then South Korea will reveal a glimpse or two at future US economic and security policies and postures in the Western Pacific. As expected, even though Biden’s trip will take him to Japan and South Korea, two staunch US allies, this visit is all about North Korea and China.
Tensions in the region are evident at first glance. China is contending with issues close to home stemming from the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland, redoubled efforts to replenish strategic oil reserves and of course, Taiwan. Then there is North Korea, dealing with its first official outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, as well as preparing for either a ballistic missile or underground nuclear test in the near future. Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia has delayed the Biden administration’s intentions to refocus on Asia this year.
The Ukraine crisis and subsequent war is raising concerns about the ability of the United States to handle simultaneous crises in different parts of the world diplomatically and politically. China’s designs on Taiwan are at the core of these concerns. One of Biden’s primary goals for this trip will be to address the worries of allies and non-aligned regions in the region and demonstrate how solid US security commitments in the region are. The president also needs to address why his administration has failed to apply an economic component to US Indo-Pacific strategy. During this trip, Biden is expected to present the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as an answer to the economic questions.
Vietnam’s importance to the South China Sea region has never been underestimated by the major players in the region or their allies around the world. This past weekend, Hanoi’s increasing significance was on full display as the government welcomed senior government officials from Japan and China. The purpose behind the visit by a senior Chinese diplomat was to smooth over relations between the two nations and urged Vietnam to resist the intervention of outside players into the disputes between Beijing and Hanoi over claims in the South China Sea. The reason for Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s trip to Vietnam was more practical. On Saturday, the two nations signed a deal enabling the export of Japanese-made weapons and equipment to Vietnam.
Wang Yi, a senior Chinese diplomat stopped in Hanoi during a one-week tour through Southeast Asia. He stated that China and Vietnam should safeguard the peace and stability in the South China Sea and be wary of external players moving to disrupt that. This was obviously a shot at the United States and the less-than successful visit by Vice President Harris to Vietnam last month. China and Vietnam agreed to manage disagreements and avoid complicating situations or expanding disputes. In short, not airing their dirty laundry or looking to external states and supranational bodies to mediate disputes.
Ironically enough, the agreement signed between Japan and Vietnam later on the same weekend was a clear example of Vietnam welcoming the assistance of an extraterritorial nation-state amid concerns about China’s growing military power. Details on the transfer of specific equipment and systems will be worked out in subsequent talks. However, naval vessels will be included in the transfer. Japanese Defense Minister Kishi and his Vietnamese counterpart, Phan Van Giang also agreed on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. This was obviously in reference to China’s aggressive maneuvering in the South China Sea.
China and Vietnam are at odds over the Spratly and Paracel Island groups in the region.
The Senkaku Islands are once again emerging as a hotspot in the Western Pacific region. Indications of new tensions between China and Japan have risen to the surface since the beginning of 2021. In January, the National People’s Congress passed a law allowing Chinese coastguard vessels to use ‘all necessary means’ to stop foreign vessels from illegally entering Chinese waters, including the use of weapons. Since then, China’s coastguard has expanded its presence in the waters around the islands- known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and Diaoyu Islands in China. Last year, Chinese coastguard vessels entered the contested waters an average of twice a month in 2020 to at least twice a week in February, 2021.
The new law, coupled with the rise in activity by Chinese ships, is causing concern in Tokyo. The Japanese government is presently, according to sources, considering a response. Japan is not looking to escalate the situation. The game plan for the moment appears to be to increase the diplomatic pressure on China, however, Japan has made it clear it will protect the islands, as well as Japanese fishing boats in the surrounding waters.
In late February, a pair of Chinese coastguard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters and approached a Japanese fishing boat near the Senkaku chain. A Japanese patrol vessel was called to provide escort for the Japanese boat and warn off the Chinese ships. Japan’s defense ministry also noted that around the same time there were two other Chinese vessels, one apparently armed with an autocannon, cruising nearby, right on the edge of Japan’s territorial waters.
In spite of the Japanese government’s to improve relations with China, public opinion in Japan has turned decidedly against China. The COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese posturing near the Senkaku Islands, and the crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have combined to create an anti-China mood in Japan. That could become a factor which influences Tokyo’s future actions if Sino-Japanese tensions escalate in the near future.
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?