Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced at the end of August that he will retire, capping a remarkable career of domestic and international leadership success. While China, North Korea and Russia often dominate world news thanks to threats and turbulence, Japan under Abe has continued a course of sustained political stability and expanding international involvement and leadership.
Abe now is Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Persistent health problems have forced his decision to step down before the end of his term. Similar difficulties led him to end an earlier tenure as head of government in 2007.
Since the end of the regional and global commercial surge of Japan three decades ago, national economic problems have often seemed to dominate domestic debate, and attention from abroad. The problem of persistent economic sluggishness, the inability to reenergize the powerful engines of rapid growth, has preoccupied both policymakers and business leaders.
However, Japan remains an economic power. The rise of China has tended to overshadow this continuing fundamental fact of economic life. Japan is a significant producer in an enormous range of products, including autos and electronics of all kinds.
Japan, like the United States and in contrast to China, has an advanced industrial economy, with long-established physical and human infrastructure providing stable support. Japan remains No. 2 in the world in gross domestic product per capita, after the U.S.
Abe has pursued a sustained, realistic vision that he has implemented with considerable success. At home, he has emphasized encouraging solidly based economic growth. Years of stagnation followed the collapse of Japan’s economy in the early 1990s. He enjoyed success until the COVID-19 public health problem this year undercut those public policy efforts.
Abroad, Abe has effectively promoted a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) involving collaboration among the maritime democracies of the region. Australia, India and the U.S. have all become supportive of this effort.
Frustration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and more general withdrawal of the U.S. from diplomatic leadership in the Pacific, have provided an opportunity for Japan to fill the void. In January 2017, President Donald Trump publicly issued a memorandum withdrawing the nation’s signature from the TPP. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, also became critical of the ambitious free trade initiative.
In September 2019, Japan and the U.S. concluded an important trade promotion agreement. The lengthy and complex negotiations strengthened the alliance.
Japan’s immediate neighbors are challenging. The substantial arms buildup in China receives continuing global attention and concern, along with the wider regional arms race, and ongoing maritime disputes. North Korea’s often-wild rhetoric, combined with nuclear weapons development, add further international frictions.
In the 19th century, as remarkably rapid industrial development began, Japan’s leaders viewed Great Britain as the example to emulate. Both are maritime nations, each close to a continent containing difficult rivals.
British leaders have had great impact, largely positive. Thomas Glover, for example, over a half century in Japan nurtured industrial development. After World War I, Japan was attracted to alliance with Germany, with disastrous results.
Today, free markets, and global trade and investment, encourage stability and the rule of law. Abe has solidified and strengthened Japan’s leadership in this often vexing but manageable environment.
Complex international challenges in our time require foreign policies that are careful and informed. This applies especially to the U.S., where erratic moves and crude statements at the top diminish our influence.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.