As Tillerson arrives in Asia, Japan's Abe emerges as effective global statesman

Prime Minister Abe has won plaudits at home and abroad for building good working relations with a diverse set of leaders, and for checking hawkish, nationalist inclinations.

Jim Bourg/Reuters
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks as US President Trump looks on during a joint press conference at the White House Feb. 10. His handling of the visit played well in Japan.

When Shinzo Abe took power in December 2012, the prognosis didn’t look good. He was the sixth prime minister Japan had seen in as many years, a run that began with Mr. Abe himself when he resigned after his first year-long stint in 2007.

While that was longer than his three successors lasted, it seemed likely that Abe was once again about to take a short spin in a constantly revolving door. But as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Tokyo today to begin what all see as a challenging tour of Asia, he will be meeting with the sixth-longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history. 

In the past five years, Abe has established an economic plan named for him (Abenomics), consolidated his domestic power base with a so-called “super majority” of two-thirds in both houses of parliament and, perhaps most unexpectedly, morphed into an effective international statesman. With a recently approved rule change potentially allowing Abe to continue as prime minister until 2021, the key US ally looks set to enjoy a level of political stability and effective leadership it has been sorely missing. 

Visiting more than 50 countries in his first two years in office, Abe has gone on to forge strategic bilateral partnerships with countries in Asia and raised Japan’s presence globally. He has won plaudits at home and abroad for building good working relations with a diverse set of leaders, including Russia's President Vladimir Putin, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and most recently US President Trump. His domestic popularity hit a three-year high when he joined former President Obama at Pearl Harbor in December to commemorate Japan's 1941 attack.

To be sure, challenges remain. Relations with Asian neighbors China and South Korea have stabilized somewhat, but remain testy. Incursions by Chinese vessels into Japanese waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu) continue almost daily. Meanwhile, Abe failed to wrest significant concessions from Mr. Putin over another set of disputed islands, situated to Japan’s north and held by Russia, during their December summit in Tokyo.

But prior to Abe's election, the potential for an escalation with China was a major concern for those who believed he would be unable to keep his hawkish, nationalist inclinations in check. Most observers, some grudgingly, now concede he has prioritized diplomacy and productive leadership.   

Won't be pushed around

Violent protests against Japanese businesses in China that followed the Japanese government's purchase of the Senkaku Islands from their private owners just before Abe came back to power probably helped the new prime minister. The resulting fall in investment in China by Japanese companies at a time when the Chinese economy had begun slowing down helped soften Beijing’s stance, according to Stephen Nagy, associate professor of politics and international studies at Tokyo’s International Christian University. 

“Abe then used his assertive behavior over the Senkaku Islands dispute to demonstrate he wouldn’t be pushed around by China,” says Mr. Nagy, who notes that played well not just domestically, “but also showed that he could be a leader in the region who could deal with China in the long term.” 

“There was an understanding on both sides that although there were political frictions, it was important to at least stabilize the economic situation,” Nagy says. 

Abe also benefited from his predecessors' missteps.

“The conditions when he came into power were very different from those in his first tour of duty as prime minister, and that has had a significant impact,” Nagy says. The previous left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan’s government was pilloried in the local media for what was portrayed as a bungled response to the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters, paving the way for Abe’s landslide victory the following year. 

Abe has also shown an instinct for deft messaging, says Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. “Abe has managed to ... make sure that his statements could not be taken out of context,” he says. “What’s amazed me has been his ability to learn from his mistakes.” 

“He’s also established very good relations with President Trump, and you never want to make the 800-pound gorilla angry,” adds Mr. Okumura. 

The experienced hand

Abe's two-day summit with Trump last month in the United States allowed Abe to play the experienced global leader next to the political neophyte, particularly in their response to the unexpected North Korean missile launch that occurred during their meeting. It was Abe who spoke first in their joint speech to reporters afterward, while the US president appeared to listen attentively. This all played very well back home for Abe, where Trump’s anti-Japan rhetoric during his campaign had worried many Japanese. 

Still, not everyone in Japan is enamored with Abe, and some see a dark side to the glowing press he has been receiving. 

“Abe has done a very good job in controlling the Japanese media. They are afraid of the consequences if they criticize him. In that sense he has been a success,” says Takashi Koyama, a former visiting professor of politics and journalism at Akita International University. “He hasn’t achieved anything substantial with President Trump yet. The US has always strived for good relations with Japan; it’s not because of Abe.”

Nevertheless, with domestic political opposition in almost universally acknowledged disarray, Abe is positioned to cement his position, alongside Putin and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, as one of the few currently enduring world leaders.   

“As a political leader, who could want more, except constitutional amendment?” says Okumura, referring to the revision of Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution that some believe is Abe’s true political goal. “He has met his destiny, or destiny has met him.”

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