Hobbit Business Review

Shinzo Abe And Newton’s Third Law: Action And Reaction

One of the more profound transformations over the past decade in Asia has been the emergence of Japan in a regional leadership role, at times even moving faster than the U.S. For decades, Japan had seemed content to operate as a loyal, if somewhat understated, member of U.S.-led foreign policy architecture. Particularly in the years after World War II, Japan had no appetite or ability to play a broader role, and no other Pacific power (including the U.S.) wanted it to do so. On trade, Japan historically had little enthusiasm for trade initiatives, moving grudgingly and minimally—and usually as the result of trade friction with the U.S.

But that changed rather dramatically under Shinzo Abe who served as prime minister in 2006-7 and again in 2012-20, making him the longest-serving PM in Japan’s history. During his term in office, we saw significant changes in three pillars of Japan’s international role: international politics, defense strategy, and trade policy.

There were two main reasons for this change: Abe himself, and China under Xi Jinping. This relationship is explained by Isaac Newton in his third law of thermodynamics: for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Abe had the vision and political wherewithal to lead Japan to its new role. But Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership also helped spur this evolution, if that is the right word. It was years of PLA incursions into Japanese-administered territories and similar border tussles in the South China sea that fostered a growing sense of unease in Tokyo.

I discussed this evolution with Mike Green, CEO of the United States Studies Center in Australia. Mike offers a history of these trends in Japan in his latest book, Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo.

Mike, who served on the George Bush (43) National Security Council, believes that Abe personally deserves much of the credit for implementing this Grand Strategy: “Under Abe, Japan had consolidated a strategic approach to China. It happened because Japan has a long history of competing with China and Abe brought conservatism and a pro-alliance outlook. Abe happened because of Xi Jinping. Abe made his 2012 comeback because the ruling party needed someone to stand up to China. Over his unprecedented eight-year term, he put in place a strategy to compete.

We can look at that strategy in its political, military, and economic dimensions. Politically, the two most significant pillars of U.S. Asia strategy both came from Abe:

  • The idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” that the U.S. and allies have to invest in the region to help democracy.
  • The Quad as a political grouping, that the leading democracies of the region should establish a political consultative mechanism.

On defense strategy, just last year, Japan announced it was increasing its military budget from 1.25% to 2% of its GDP. Again, Green gives Abe the credit: “Abe set up the policy and his party did this in his name. Defense spending had been decreasing over a decade and Abe reversed the decline.”

Beyond the budget dimension, Abe got Japan off the bench. After 9/11, the U.K. and Australia both came to the support of the U.S., but Japan did not, interpreting its constitution to preclude such assistance. In 2015, Abe got the government to reinterpret the law saying Japan could engage in collective defense if it affects Japan’s security. This means the U.S. and Japan can now jointly plan operations.

Finally, the economic issues. Under Abe, Japan started getting serious about trade, reconstituting the TPP as the CPTPP. The proportion of Japan’s trade covered by Free Trade Agreements went from 17% to more than 80%, including a digital agreement with the U.S.

There were other factors beyond the Abe/Xi relationship. The back-to-back presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump did not engender confidence among U.S. allies. North Korean nuclear tests and missile tests reinforced concern in Tokyo as well.

Nor has this been exclusively a Japanese phenomenon. Taiwan has increased its military service obligation from four to 12 months. Australia is an energetic proponent of the Quad.

So after years of engagement and outreach across Asia, China has precisely the results it did not want. How could China allow this to happen?

My conclusion is that Chinese foreign policy is still defined by the primacy of its domestic politics, which rewards assertiveness and equates friction with fortitude. In general, the greatest challenge for an emerging power is the challenge of restraint. More important than how to use your power is how not to use your power. China seems to have a dominant domestic constituency that sees territorial incursions as useful, and until it breaks that habit, it is incentivizing Japan and others to respond. Isaac Newton lives.

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