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Abe’s Hard Road

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe so far has defied predictions of his imminent political demise. Refusing to take the traditional Japanese path and accept responsibility for his party’s crushing defeat in parliamentary elections last month, he has instead forged a new cabinet of the leading politicians in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His bold tactic, however, may well make it even harder for him to govern, thus hastening the end of his premiership.

Abe’s party lost the last election due in no small part to scandals among his ministers. Today’s news brings word of yet two more resignations, these from a Cabinet not two weeks old. Abe’s tactic was to turn around his team and forge ahead on important domestic and foreign issues, but the opposition party will certainly push as hard as possible for early elections that would likely further weaken the LDP.

Most importantly, the presence of LDP heavyweights, including former foreign and defense ministers, has the potential both to dilute policy-making and neutralize Abe’s primacy. He will have to navigate among a group of experienced, equally ambitious leaders, who have been brought in precisely because Abe couldn’t deliver the first time around. Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, moved from the Foreign Ministry to Secretary General of the LDP, has already made clear his intent to try to succeed Abe. The tendency toward lowest-common-denominator politics after the roller coaster years of Koizumi and the first Abe cabinet may naturally assert itself.

The result of this would be at best muddling through and at worst a rudderless leadership, at a time when Japan is facing serious domestic and foreign problems. Abe’s first major test is renewal of the special law permitting Japanese naval ships to refuel coalition forces in the Indian Ocean. Failure to secure the extension would further complicate relations with the United States, which are already under strain due to the Bush Administration’s continued negotiations with North Korea through the Six Party Talks. Tokyo has so far stuck fast to its refusal to participate further in the talks until North Korea releases the numerous Japanese citizens it has kidnapped.

Abe has to start showing results. The Japan-ASEAN free-trade agreement reached two weeks ago is an important and laudable achievement; it goes a long way toward maintaining Japan’s presence in Asia. But more needs to be done. Abe’s call for a partnership of democracies or his “arc of freedom and prosperity” is still just rhetoric. Abe’s values-based diplomacy has yet to move beyond mere words—what kinds of partnerships, organizations, or policies is he imagining? How will he move toward them? Will he embrace all democracies in the regions, including South Korea and Taiwan, or is he aiming at strategic partnerships with India and Australia? Just as important is the question of how well, if at all, Abe can balance his desire to engage China with his apparent strategy of countering its rise by promoting the partnership of democracies.

Abe’s refusal to scale back his ambitious vision for Japanese diplomacy is perhaps his one salient similarity to Koizumi, who was famous for doggedly sticking to a goal once he had pledged himself to it. Whether he can match Mr. Koizumi’s longevity in office, however, is another thing entirely.


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