Stealthily, Abe breaks foreign policy taboos in Japan

Just as last week’s column explained how President Emmanuel Macron’s coming re-election could be attributed to the specific political culture of France, so Japanese political culture is particular, fascinating, and entirely different from any other.

For example, while most of what happens in American politics can be assessed by viewing the (literally) thousands of open-source articles written about it on any given day, Japanese politics tends to happen behind the curtains. If we are lucky, every once in a while, the curtains rustle ever so slightly and its murky world becomes at least partially observable if we have but eyes to see. But Japanese politics is about training yourself to look at a world of shadows.

This past week, with the world’s gaze turned entirely away given the universal focus on the Ukraine crisis, one such rustling of the curtains took place. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe —the most successful premier of his generation, and primary author of Asia’s seminal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad — enabled a brief glimpse into the world of Japan’s political elite. At 67, Abe remains in many ways the power behind the throne in Japan, as leader of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction. It was Abe’s support that was decisive in the elevation of Fumio Kishida to his current role as prime minister. It is not too much to say that, even without the formal title, Abe remains the most powerful figure in Japanese politics.

As such, what the kingmaker had to say this week signified nothing less than a toughening of the Japanese position regarding China. Speaking with a bluntness uncharacteristic of his political contemporaries, the former prime minister said Japan should consider “nuclear sharing” of the kind by which other NATO countries such as Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, store American nuclear weapons on their territory. By making it plain that Tokyo could also be open to storing American nukes, Abe is signaling that Japan will not accept either being blackmailed (its perpetual foreign policy strategy) by North Korea or being bullied by a rising China.

Aghast, as his personal constituency is in Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic blast, Prime Minister Kishida somewhat lamely said Abe’s interjection was not government policy. That seems to be precisely the point. At last unbound from the formal constraints of the premiership, Abe has found the intellectual freedom to speak his mind as he tenaciously moves the Japanese foreign policy discourse toward re-making his country—75 years after the end of the Second World War — as a more “normal” foreign policy great power.

But Abe was far from done with his musings. Going further, he urged his American allies to abandon their longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. Since the Carter era, the policy has been that the US is bound to come to the aid of Taiwan if it is attacked (presumably by China), without ever making it clear if this means the deployment of American ground forces to help repel such an attack. For decades, this very vagueness was politically comfortable for both Washington and Beijing. The US could say to its Asia-first lobby that it was committed to defending Taipei, and China could say to its hawks that the American commitment did not necessarily include the deployment of US forces, meaning a Sino-American shooting war was not inevitable should Beijing choose to invade.

However, for Abe and for many other foreign policy observers, the days of strategic obfuscation must come to an end, because this very vagueness makes the possibility of war more likely as miscalculations become highly likely. Beneath the waves, what Abe is hoping to do over time is prod his primary American ally into offering a formal security guarantee to Taiwan as a way to shore up the nascent but growing anti-Chinese alliance in the Indo-Pacific.

It is not ludicrous to believe the former premier is capable of such strategic magic. The Quad is Abe’s brainchild — a political mini-NATO comprising Japan, India, the US and Anglosphere member Australia that seeks ways to contain Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific and looks to work together as the bulwark of the existing strategic order. After a false start in 2007-2008, Abe’s tenacity paid off as the Quad was reborn in 2017. Pressing his close personal ties with both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, Abe reassembled the Quad in such a way that it is now seen (along with the AUKUS defense treaty between the US, the UK, and Australia) as the supreme institutional expression specifically designed to halt Chinese adventurism in Asia.

This week, in rustling the curtains, Abe clearly signaled — in the subtle way that is how Japanese political culture works — that his days of crafting the region’s anti-Chinese coalition are far from over. While the US is not likely to station nuclear weapons on Japanese soil anytime soon, nor is Washington imminently about to do away with its strategic ambiguity over Taiwan, in raising these topics — previously taboo in his country — Abe is making his strategic direction of travel crystal clear. There is more work to be done in bolstering the democratic alliance in Asia.   

This post was originally published in Arab News.