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Japan: Stability in Abe’s office is crucial to regional security

By David Lang

Word came down late last month that Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is set to revise its rules to allow party leaders to serve a third consecutive three-year stint. The proposal, to be put before the LDP convention next March, would open the door to extending Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tenure beyond September 2018, when he must step down after two terms.

The development could be manna from heaven for Canberra — Tokyo strategic ties and a golden opportunity after the sorry submarine saga that mired the blooming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan this year.

Should the change be confirmed and the LDP retain power, Abe could stay in office through the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which would make him Japan’s longest-serving post-war prime minister.

With unsettling efficiency, Japan cycled through six prime ministers in six years between 2006 and 2012 — a wild ride Abe himself inaugurated with his one-year high office debut in September 2006. But the second Abe government has brought remarkable stability to the Prime Minister’s office.

Despite a mixed record for his economic policies, Abe’s electoral popularity remains enormous after four years in power. In July, the LDP secured a majority in the Diet’s Upper House to match that which they hold in the Lower House, an achievement not seen since 1989. And a pair of LDP candidates got up in Lower House by-elections last Monday — a strong showing that fuelled speculation of a snap Lower House election early next year to cement the government’s authority.

While Abe has been fortunate to face weak and fragmented opposition forces, he has also made his own luck with an ambitious policy agenda and a personal drive to restore Japan’s “first-tier nation” status.

Abe has sought to modernise and normalise Japan’s foreign and defence policy settings to better meet the realities of a more fractious regional environment. His government has unfurled a suite of reforms across legal, military, institutional and diplomatic arenas aimed at reorienting the country’s strategic posture, moves intended to afford Japan an expanded leadership role in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

It’s an international agenda that caught the eye of Tony Abbott, who as prime minister boosted our security relationship to a “special strategic partnership”, building on the historic foundation laid by John Howard and strengthened by Julia Gillard. The bilateral bond rests on shared interests, shared values and, increasingly, shared concerns, as Xi Jinping shepherds China’s muscular and provocative foreign policy.

Japan faces many challenges: an ageing and shrinking population and a stagnating economy chief among them. Those issues and others have the potential to further foment a reflexive inward focus in Japanese society and a mood that jars with Abe’s internationalist initiatives.

In a paper written for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Brad Glosserman of the CSIS Pacific Forum reckons Tokyo must be “given a stake in regional outcomes and pushed to play as prominent a security role as possible … even while its partners remain conscious of the domestic circumstances that create resistance to such initiatives”.

It’s in Australia’s interests to support a responsible, active and forward-leaning Japan that seeks to make a greater contribution to regional security, stability and prosperity. So Canberra’s job is clear: it must think creatively about how to further institutionalise our bilateral security co-operation and further draw Japan out to play a greater security role in our region.

One such opportunity exists in Abe’s ambition to see Japan become a player in the global defence exports market. Japan’s desire to build Australia’s next submarine fleet came unstuck in part due to the country’s inexperience in putting together such bids. While it was an unnecessarily bruising experience for Tokyo, Canberra should seize the moment by encouraging Japan’s nascent efforts. Our mentorship can help Japan build a corporate culture around arms exports, guiding Japanese firms to seek commercial military export opportunities across the region and further afield.

A study released this year by the Japan Centre for International Exchange characterised the Prime Minister’s stable tenure as the exception that proves the rule and that revolving-door leadership is likely to return after Abe.

Such a development would have profound implications for Japan’s ability to sustain a strong international presence as future leaders shrink their policy ambitions guided by caution and continuity. The implications for the Australia- Japan relationship and Japan’s regional role are clear.

The LDP’s proposed rule change would put more time on the clock for the Japanese government to prosecute its domestic and foreign policy agenda. The prospect augurs well for our bilateral relationship and it should spur the Turnbull government and Canberra’s strategic policymakers to redouble their efforts to harness the opportunity of Abe.

David Lang is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and the founder and chair of the Australia–Japan Youth Dialogue.
Originally published: The Australian. 10 November 2016

Originally published by: The Australian on 10 Nov 2016