Friday, January 19, 2018

What is ahead for PM Abe in 2018

Mr Abe has a lot to contemplate

Just as PM Turnbull was in town to meet with his Japanese counterpart yesterday, I completed a piece for the Lowy Institute Interpreter. The final version is here.

This is the original version, mainly for my records, but you're welcome to read it too. I recalled a post I wrote back in June 2014 on the then 2+2 ministerial meeting. You'll find that here. The more things change...etc.


A dogged year ahead (a nod to 2018 being the year of the Dog)

As news outlets summed up the year that was and the year ahead, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s most widely-read newspaper (and notably pro-government) featured its top 10 stories for 2017, domestic and international, according to its readers. Internationally, Trump was the story. Domestically, it was a 14 year old shogi (Japanese chess) master-in-the-making and his run of 29 straight victories. In a year where there was a snap election, political scandals, formalisation of the Emperor’s abdication (for the first time in centuries), and growing concerns about the Korean Peninsula, it was Sota Fujii, who captured most readers’ imaginations. Perhaps it was a sign that the nation, exhausted by the politics of the year, sought refuge in the competitive instincts of a junior high school chess master in the making.

 As in shogi, so too the demands of politics, domestic and international, will require masterful strategic analysis and plays, especially as 2018 unfolds for Prime Minister Abe. 

He began the year with a six-nation trip to Europe, taking in three Baltic States, as well as Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania. Talks were expected to centre on international issues such as North Korea as well as regional economic potential. The visit was a first for a Japanese prime minister and for PM Abe, it was also an opportunity for some diplomatic content for his newly-acquired Instagram account.

 The backdrop to 2018 here in Japan is the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, recognised as the time when a ‘closed’ Japan was opened to the West. As with most narratives of nation-forging identities, the Meiji Restoration has its supporters and its detractors. The debate will continue through the year. PM Abe increasingly sees himself as a latter-day Meiji figure, ready to restore Japan to its former greatness, with just sufficient ambiguity as to just what that means for the nation and for regional relations.

In the broad brush of Meiji commemorations, perhaps PM Abe seeks to avert his gaze from the pressing domestic issues placed before him, like shogi pieces he will need to account for them though rather than sweep the board. Carrying over from 2017, the ongoing tensions with the people of Okinawa, host of key American bases, and increasingly, site of accidents and ‘mishaps’ that the locals continue to resist. In the year that Abe seeks to amend the constitution, we will be compelled to engage with the very real concerns of Okinawans who confront the reality of a ‘reconstituted’ military daily. Australian proponents of greater security cooperation would do well to familiarise themselves with the circumstances that draw the people of this prefecture to an ongoing resistance of Tokyo’s dictates.

 Abe’s strategizing on several fronts leads to his party, the Liberal Democratic Party holding its conference later in the year, whereupon Abe anticipates a further extension of his already-extended term as party president. At times, this seems like a fait accompli and at other times, increasing factional machinations point to a testing road to the presidential post. In recent LDP history, extensions to its admittedly self-imposed two two-term limits on the post (as party president one is automatically prime minister as long as the LDP is in government) have been ceded but only where no immediate challengers were apparent and a level of charisma carried the incumbent over the line. This is not the case for PM Abe and his ambivalent relationship with the public does concern some members of the party, both hawks and doves, who are reluctant to wait much longer to take their turn at leading the party.

 Meanwhile, although the opposition parties are continuing to shake out the 2017 shakedown of break-ups and alliances, it is clear that a more concerted opposition to constitutional reform will coalesce and at the same time, opposition parties are also declaring their intent to pursue ongoing political scandals with Moritomo and Kake educational organisations. These scandals over money and favours for friends, cost Abe greatly in opinion polling, even more so than constitutional reform, which is played out at a much more abstract level for many people.

Abe returns to Tokyo then to walk almost straight into a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull, while not quite the first strategic move on the chess board for 2018, both prime ministers share a potentially tumultuous year ahead will perhaps seek a moment to confide in each other’s respective domestic domains as well as reaffirm strengthening, if not predictable, security cooperation. The meeting was foreshadowed on Christmas Day 2017, on the front page of the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, something of a surprise for keen observers of the bilateral relationship. The Yomiuri, as a strong backer of Abe’s constitutional reforms, not surprisingly reported the forthcoming meeting as a strategic necessity, even citing the talks as signalling a ‘strengthening of a relationship with a partner considered a quasi-ally’. No doubt, both prime ministers will nod in furious agreement but it is not exactly the sort of thing that is going to spark the hearts and minds of a populace prepared to back the outlier story in a year of notable events. For that to happen, Japan and Australia will need to go beyond the military-security pretext and reinvigorate a once robust and multi-dimensional relationship.