Abe Shinzo is the longest-serving prime minister in post-World War II Japan. Having occupied the office since December 2012, Abe has attempted to leverage his stable tenure to increase Japan’s international presence. In particular, Abe has tried to reshape the way Japan conducts its foreign policy, from being responsive to proactive. “A proactive contribution to peace with international principle” or chikyushugi o fukansuru gaiko (diplomacy that takes a panoramic view of the world map) symbolizes his government’s approach, part of an earnest attempt to remain relevant on the international scene even as the country grapples with irreversible trends including population decline and aging.
Abe’s February 2013 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies during his first visit to Washington DC after returning to power demonstrates his determination to expand (or sustain at a minimum) Japan’s international presence. He spoke at length about his government’s insistence on keeping Japan a “first-rate country” and his desire to ensure that it will play a role as “the guardian of the commons,” contributing to international efforts to uphold rules and norms.
Indeed, over 7 years since then, Abe has led his government to attempt to reshape his country’s foreign policy. At the end of his first year in office, Japan’s first-ever National Security Strategy was issued. Abe tried to anchor Japan’s foreign policy in two key factors – a robust alliance with the United States, and expansion of its partnerships with other U.S. allies and partners. In addition, as he sought to demonstrate his government’s firm commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance, he also has attempted to carve out a broader room for autonomous diplomacy with the leaders of the countries that the U.S. do not necessarily consider as partners. In fact, particularly in Northeast Asia, Abe’s moves have often been out of sync with U.S. ones – with Kim Jong-un in 2018, Moon Jae-in in 2019, Putin from well back, and increasingly with Xi in the Trump era.
Abe encountered a range of challenges in recalibrating foreign policy within Northeast Asia. With history issues unresolved with some neighbors over apologies and compensation for Japan’s wartime behavior, disagreements over sovereignty issues lingering from that period, and contention over security issues, Abe has found it difficult to apply his overarching foreign policy principles in bilateral relations with China, the two Koreas, and Russia. Abe has taken different approaches to move relations forward with these countries, but diplomacy since December 2012 has had one common thread: Abe’s role as the “diplomat-in-chief” has been pronounced.
By mid-2019, Abe’s successes were widely heralded: the closest relationship with Donald Trump of any world leader; improvement in Japan-China relations with a state visit by Xi Jinping – this would have been the first in seven years for a Chinese leader – targeted for the spring of 2020; sustained diplomacy with Vladimir Putin to keep the hope for a long-sought breakthrough in Japan-Russia relations; deepening ties with leaders in Australia (particularly under former prime minister Tony Abbott), India (Narendra Modi met with Abe and Trump together at the G20 Abe hosted), and Southeast Asia; and the more decisive response to the challenges from South Korea, first under Park Geun-hye and now under Moon Jae-in.