America’s China Policy Is Not Working
The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling
In the years before Shinzo Abe came to power as prime minister, Japan staggered under multiple blows. Its years of fast economic growth were long gone, the end of the Cold War had raised doubts about the durability of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and Tokyo’s fumbling reaction to the 1991 Persian Gulf War had led Japan to be widely perceived as a free rider in the international order. The region showed signs of a gathering storm, with China’s surging economic and military power and North Korea’s escalating nuclear activities after its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
In the face of these challenges, Abe was the rare Japanese leader who not only observed this changing world but also developed a clear vision for his country’s role in it and worked alongside Japan’s partners to see it through. Many in Japan and many of the country’s neighbors embraced Abe’s conservative vision for foreign policy: that Japan was “back”! Some of his countrymen and neighbors, however, were troubled by the sometimes extreme manifestations of Abe’s nationalism and unwilling to bring “back” a Japan that dodged the lessons of its wartime past. Forced to choose between his conservative security policy goals and his conservative nationalism, Abe compromised. Japan has lost a formidable leader, who, with foresight, astuteness, and adaptability, was still actively shaping policy debates in an era of tremendous change. The magnitude of his loss raises real questions about whether his vision will ever be achieved.
Assassinated on July 8 in the city of Nara, Abe was Japan’s youngest and longest-serving prime minister. In a country known for a parade of short-term, forgettable prime ministers, he governed (after a brief first term from 2006 to 2007) for nearly eight consecutive years, from 2012 to 2020. Domestically, his policies and reforms, known as “Abenomics,” sought, with early success, to restore Japan’s economic dynamism. (Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy and a key technological leader.) Abe was also known for addressing Japan’s gender inequality; the World Economic Forum ranks Japan’s gender parity at a lamentable 120th of 153 countries. His rhetoric about helping women “shine” eclipsed the limited results of his efforts, in both broader society and Japanese politics. But his focus on “womenomics” raised the prominence of a crucial issue that most Japanese leaders had been content to ignore.
Foreign policy is the realm in which Abe’s legacy is most pronounced. Today, great-power competition dominates conversations in Washington and beyond. It is hard to remember that two decades ago, when Abe started to articulate his foreign policy vision, he was far ahead of many Japanese and global leaders—and way out in front of a somnolent Japanese public—in terms of understanding trends in China’s power, territorial revisionism, and ambitions for international order. When Abe developed his ideas about Indo-Pacific regional security, the concept of an Indo-Pacific didn’t exist. Not only did Abe introduce this idea (which now underpins both Japanese and American strategic thinking), he also recognized that China’s challenge to the region would require a significant shift in Japanese policy.
Postwar Japanese security policy was grounded in the Yoshida Doctrine, named for its architect, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. Under this doctrine, Japan concentrated on rebuilding its economy while relying on the United States for its security needs. The U.S.-Japanese alliance (signed in 1951 and renewed in 1960) brought significant costs and risks: for example, Japan risked entrapment in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Japan provided the United States with military bases while paying subsidies to the United States and accepting the local insecurities that came with a foreign military presence, such as the rape of local women, accidents, and environmental damage. Yet the alliance also enabled Japan to pass the buck to the United States, with Japanese military spending amounting to a bare one percent of GDP. This is about half the global average, and remarkable given Japan’s wealth. But during the Cold War, the lopsided alliance worked. The Soviet economy was never more than about a third the size of the U.S. economy, and Moscow focused most of its military power on Europe.
No one would dispute Abe’s profound influence as an architect of a compelling and coherent security vision.
The end of the Cold War gave rise to new dangers in Japan’s security environment. Decades of fast growth led China to leapfrog Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy and to devote its new wealth to improving its maritime military capabilities while adopting a more assertive regional military posture. Several years ago, a sweeping study by the RAND Corporation warned that China’s military buildup of sophisticated sensors, weapons platforms, and, now, the world’s largest navy, was eroding the U.S. ability to funnel its aircraft and surface vessels into the region. And indeed, as the former senior U.S. Navy official Thomas Shugart argues, “absent significant changes in current trends,” all should expect Chinese “military domination of the region” in a decade or so.
In response to these changing conditions, Abe realized that Japanese security policy needed to change, too. One of his major goals was revising Japan’s constitution, whose Article 9 prohibits Japan from having military forces or engaging in military statecraft to solve international problems. Abe never achieved this, however, because of strong public support for Article 9. Instead, in 2015 national security legislation, Abe oversaw an official “reinterpretation” of the constitution that would allow for greater Japanese security cooperation with the United States and other partners. As the Japan expert and Abe biographer Tobias Harris points out, Abe orchestrated numerous other important changes in Japanese policy, raising defense spending and creating a “national security state” that Japan had previously lacked. Abe’s government passed a law to increase penalties for revealing state secrets, while creating a National Security Council, supported by a secretariat, that moved substantial foreign and security policymaking initiatives to the prime minister’s office. Did these actions make Japan more secure? Critics opposing greater military mobilization and worried about the secrecy law being used to stifle political opposition say no. But no one would dispute Abe’s profound influence as an architect of a compelling and coherent security vision.
As Abe reformed Japanese security policy, he also worked to strengthen the U.S.-Japanese alliance. His leadership was welcomed in Washington, which had long urged Japan to take on a bigger role. Joint military planning and training deepened, and as the political scientist Ryo Sahashi observes, Washington embraced Abe’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” as well as the formation of a “Quad” with Australia and India. In addition to capability- and institution-building with Washington, Abe engaged in a historical reconciliation with the United States. Partnering with President Barack Obama, he created profoundly reconciliatory moments at both Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, ceremonies at which the two countries expressed their grief about the violence and losses on both sides and (at Hiroshima) reaffirmed a shared commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.
Abe didn’t just work well with Washington’s mainstream alliance managers. He and his government rolled with the punches of the 2016 election and the surprising victory of Donald Trump. Abe hastened to Trump Tower in Manhattan to be the first global leader to pay his respects in person, presenting the president-elect with a gold-plated Honma golf club (later on display when the two played a jovial round at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida). Throughout this era of upheaval and uncertainty in U.S. alliance policy, Abe developed a friendly working relationship with Trump.
More important, when the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Abe took the helm in regional economic diplomacy. The Brookings Institution scholar Mireya Solis writes that Abe’s Japan “filled the vacuum left by Washington’s abandonment” of the TPP and “deftly prevented the trade agreement from unraveling, preserving its ambitious requirements on tariff elimination and taking a surgical approach to suspending a number of rules that the United States had championed.”
In addition to striving for strong relations with the United States, Abe adopted a wider diplomatic profile than most Japanese prime ministers. He cultivated close ties with India’s leader, Narendra Modi, who issued a moving statement after the prime minister’s death noting that Abe was a “great visionary” who had transformed bilateral ties from a “largely narrow” economic relationship to a “broad comprehensive one.” Abe sought to engage the United Kingdom on Indo-Pacific security affairs, finding an enthusiastic ally in a post-Brexit country looking for global partners. As The Economist noted, “Since 2015 Britain has hailed Japan as its closest security partner in Asia, sent Typhoon fighter jets to carry out exercises with Japan’s air force and become the first country other than America to drill with Japan’s army.” Despite China’s emerging as Japan’s main security challenge, Abe also worked to improve bilateral relations, declaring a “fresh start” after a 2017 meeting with Xi Jinping and visiting Beijing the following year. Abe not only recognized the need to transform regional security relations but also devoted tremendous diplomatic energy toward realizing this vision.
Critics and the media frequently describe Abe as an “ultraconservative” of the “far right.” While Abe was indeed a conservative, such labels obscure his recognition of the tension between his nationalism and his national security goals—and how he compromised on the former when it threatened his pursuit of the latter.
Abe was part of a conservative faction of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and known for his association with Nippon Kaigi, an influential conservative organization that among other goals advocated teaching Japanese history to inculcate national pride. Early in his term, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine, a polarizing site because it honors not only ordinary Japanese soldiers but also the men convicted of “crimes against humanity” in the post–World War II Tokyo war crimes trials. Japanese conservatives who favor visiting Yasukuni sometimes rail against the many flaws of the trials; other conservatives say they merely seek to honor the sacrifices of those who died for Japan. Abe’s 2013 visit to the shrine outraged many Japanese, South Koreans, Chinese, and Americans who see the place as whitewashing and even celebrating Japan’s wartime atrocities.
Furthermore, Abe sparked consternation by declaring that his government intended to review the landmark Kono Statement about the wartime “comfort women.” This 1993 statement officially acknowledged Japanese government involvement in the program, in which many Asian women and girls were tricked and forced into sexual slavery for Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II. The issue is highly divisive in Japan. The LDP’s big tent covers not only moderate conservatives who acknowledge these atrocities but also deniers who dismiss the victims as prostitutes and deny a coercive role by the Japanese government. Previously, Abe seemed to side with the latter. For many observers inside and outside Japan, a policy of expanding Japan’s military statecraft while whitewashing its wartime atrocities was too toxic a combination. It was particularly counterproductive in relations with South Korea, an erstwhile security partner whose people remember the estimated 200,000 Korean women victimized by the program and continue to push Tokyo for greater recognition.
Observing the domestic, regional, and global backlash, and prioritizing his foreign policy goals, Abe changed direction. He abandoned his challenge of the Kono Statement and issued another official apology. He sought to resolve the comfort women issue with South Korean leader Park Geun-hye, issuing still another official apology. The occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015 gave Abe a prominent platform in which he could frame Japan’s past. In an August 15 speech, Abe mollified liberals and regional observers by including language seen as essential for acknowledging Japan’s past wrongdoing. Still, Abe tipped his hat to conservatives, saying, “We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with the war, be predestined to apologize.” This sentiment evokes statements by postwar West German conservatives to “draw a line under the past” and to not “walk around in hair shirts for perpetuity.” Though deplored by liberals, such views represent a conservatism far more moderate than outright evasion or denials. With this moderation, Abe increased support for his security vision.
Abe has indeed transformed Japanese security policy, and with every new security initiative he brokered, breathless media coverage proclaimed a more “muscular” Japan (or, lamentably, a more “militarist” Japan). But for a rich, technologically advanced country with a hostile superpower eyeing pieces of its territory, Japan remains surprisingly restrained in terms of defense spending and military doctrine. The country still has a great distance to travel before Abe’s vision can be fully realized—and one wonders whether Japan will ever get there.
Indeed, the costs of a balancing effort against China would be profound. Japan would be increasing defense spending at a time when it faces not only a massive debt burden but also adverse long-term economic fortunes cause by population decline. As was evident under Abe’s leadership, mobilizing for a security competition with China would also require challenging the pacifist norms and institutions valued by many Japanese people and politicians. It’s an inauspicious way to begin a security competition: saddled with debt, dragging along a reluctant population, and stretching diminishing national capabilities. Abe was one of the few Japanese leaders with the intellectual framework and political acumen to lead his country through this debate. Though there are certainly other talented leaders who can carry this mantle, without Abe the task is harder. The public as well as many Japanese politicians remain preoccupied with domestic problems and hoping for the best in an increasingly Chinese-dominated Asia. The Japanese people might well decide that they prefer to sit this one out.
Most of the coverage of Abe’s death and life describes him as a “polarizing” figure, which indeed he was. Journalists deplored his government’s relationship with the media, which shifted from spin into censorship. Abe’s government was clouded by scandals involving violations of election and campaign financing laws as well as providing political favors for friends. Critics lambasted his conservative nationalism, even after he tempered its most disturbing excesses. Inside and outside Japan, liberals wanted Abe to confront and atone for the darker aspects of Japan’s past—and many wanted him to preserve Japan’s longtime military restraint. Japanese conservatives, on the other hand, applauded Abe’s national pride as well as his effort to increase his country’s military capabilities and participation. But all sides recognize a visionary leader, and a tragic loss to Japan.