Where are Japan-US relations heading after Japan’s
2020-08-31 17:19:01
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By Da Zhigang Source: Global Times Published: 2020/8/30 20:35:16

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's announcement on Friday that he will step down as the country's leader due to health issues has sent shudders through Japanese politics. The international community has made positive comments about Abe's tenure. It is also paying close attention to who will replace him and what will his successor's ruling be like.

Abe's tenure, after all, saw stronger US-Japan relations with talks of changes to the pacifist constitution. Now, many analysts are wondering how this "earthquake" in Japanese politics will impact Japan-US relations, particularly military cooperation.

To what degree will Abe's resignation affect Japan-US relations? This was the immediate question of many Japanese and Americans when the announcement came out. Objectively speaking, Abe has taken many practical measures and achieved remarkable results by strengthening Japan-US relations since his second term that started in December 2012. In fact, Japan-US relation has become the cornerstone for Japan's global diplomacy, and Abe himself has become one of US President Donald Trump's handful best friends.

From the perspective of economic and trade cooperation, Abe, during the administrations of Obama and Trump, promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the upgrading of bilateral economic and trade cooperation. He brought this to new heights with the Japan-US trade agreement in October 2019. However, Japan's move to cooperate with the US to build an alternative and de-sinicized industrial and supply chain amid the pandemic was clearly their consorted containment drive against China, and not just about economics or trade.

In terms of global and regional strategies, the US Indo-Pacific Strategy has become an experiment platform and a strong bond for Japan and the US to achieve their common goals. The joint ability of Japan and the US to interfere in global and regional affairs has been expanded.

In addition, defense cooperation between Japan and the US has made continuous breakthroughs. These included greater levels of intervention in Asia-Pacific affairs and arms cooperation across land, sea and air. Japan has managed to extend its military forces overseas.

In this context, Abe's resignation will officially and privately influence the relations between Japan and the US. First, it will increase the uncertainty for the currently solidifying Japan-US relationship. Second, the US' diplomatic and economic construct might be temporarily impacted. Third, it will influence the subsequent military cooperation negotiations and regional deployments.

Will Abe's successor continue accelerating cooperation with the US? Or will he or she carry on Abe's geopolitical balancing skills by not picking a side between China and the US? The answers to the two questions will magnify the uncertainty of Japan-US relations and increase the possibility of adjustment in military cooperation.

The impact of Abe's resignation will first affect the US' advantage in the major power competition. Washington will have to make more efforts to accommodate the new Japanese prime minister. This might also bring difficulties regarding US-Japan military cooperation.

Although Abe gained advantages by creating opportunities for Japan to be involved in issues such as the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea, Japan's pursuit of strategic flexibility and autonomy in military deployment has rung alert to the US.

Furthermore, Abe's successor will have to figure out a way to manage the thorny issue in which the US wants Japan to deploy medium-range missiles. This will be a test of his or her wisdom. Abe has dodged the bullet by resigning, but will his successor? Perhaps future military cooperation with Washington will be a cradle of disaster for Tokyo.

Even with such uncertainties, however, Japan-US relations won't change substantially as Japan has been looking to the US since the end of World War II. The orientation of bilateral relations and the strategic interests of the two countries in global affairs will not be qualitatively altered by Abe's resignation.

The impact of Abe's resignation for the US is manageable. There is every reason to believe that the seismic waves of Abe's resignation will hardly damage the fundamental structure of Japan-US relations. There will be no major fluctuations.

Senior US officials have highly praised Abe's resilience to maintain and promote US-Japan relations. They have expressed hope that his successor will continue to demonstrate the continuity of US-Japan cooperation. This can be seen either as a consolation for Abe's efforts or a veiled warning to his successor.

Perhaps, the next Japanese prime minister will have to bring forth something new from Abe's policy while at the same time preserving the status quo of Japan-US relations as a pledge to the US.

The author is director and research fellow of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences and chief expert at the Northeast Asian Strategic Studies Institute. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn