Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a news conference in Tokyo, Monday, May 25, 2020.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a news conference in Tokyo, Monday, May 25, 2020. Kim Kyung-hoon/Pool Photo via AP

What Abe Leaves Behind

The security issues facing Japan remain unchanged. Abe's likely successor, Yoshihide Suga, may be forced to confront them on his very first day.

Last week, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shocked the political world by resigning. His unexpected departure leaves several of his  policy priorities unfinished, including revising Japan’s constitution and finalizing a peace treaty with Russia. But the security issues facing Japan and the region remain unchanged, and Abe’s successor may be forced to confront several of them on his very first day. 

Although there are several qualified candidates who could replace Abe, the factions of the Liberal Democratic Party that are responsible for voting on Abe’s replacement in an intra-party election appear to have coalesced around current Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Suga, in his position since 2012, is known for his ability to coordinate policies and work with bureaucrats, not for defense or national security issues. Assuming Suga becomes the next prime minister, he might choose to continue the policies put in place by Abe. Because the security issues facing Japan and the region have largely not changed, Suga’s approach might not either. Three issues will likely demand Suga’s attention.

The first is China. If history is a guide, and as Japan’s defense white paper has acknowledged, China will continue to pour money into its military to improve nuclear, missile, naval and air forces while working to dominate in cyber, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. This matters for Abe’s successor because China leverages these capabilities to engage in unilateral and coercive attempts to change the status quo of the existing international order, including in the waters and airspace surrounding Japan, with a particular focus on the Senkaku Islands. This is highly unlikely to change. In fact, China may take advantage of the leadership transition in Tokyo to test Suga.

The second issue is North Korea. Despite its relative silence in recent years, Japan believes that North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction and increase its arsenal of ballistic missiles while growing a large-scale cyber capability. The flurry of diplomacy over the past few years has done little to stop North Korea’s behavior. The regime conducted six nuclear tests, three since 2016. Those tests paused during the height of talks under President Donald Trump. But most experts believe that it is not a question of if North Korea will resume these provocations, but when. Historically, North Korea has conducted nuclear or missile tests during moments like leadership transitions in South Korea, so the November election in the United States or even Japan’s transition later this month could be next. The point is, North Korea has used provocative rhetoric and behavior against Japan in the past, it will likely do so again. 

The final issue is the United States. Suga is likely to confront challenges stemming from Japan’s only ally. Perceived U.S. disengagement from the region has led some leaders to openly question whether the United States will honor its commitments to regional security and to call for Japan to take on greater leadership roles and strengthen its security relationships. There’s good reason for their fears. Under the Trump administration, the United States has openly criticized allies, and Trump demanded Japan pay more for America’s troop presence or risk troop withdrawal, according to John Bolton, the president’s former national security advisor. Negotiations on host nation support are expected to begin soon. Suga is going to have to manage those and the possibility that the reputation of the United States could continue to decline — not to mention a possible presidential transition that could lead to a vacuum of U.S. engagement for some time.

Suga is capable and is expected to be skillful at managing Japan’s bureaucracy, but he is not known to be a security expert or interested in diplomacy. This does not mean he does not see the threats or understand the issues; rather, Abe’s personal involvement in these issues meant that Suga focused on intra-government relations and largely domestic issues. Should Suga become prime minister, which is almost certain, he will be confronted with security issues relatively soon. Before his resignation, Abe set in motion the process to revise Japan’s National Security Strategy and update the 2018 iterations of the National Defense Program Guidelines and Medium Term Defense Plan. And in June, the Abe government decided to cancel the deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile system and began to discuss options for bolstering Japan’s deterrence capabilities. These items will be in the inbox awaiting Suga.

As daunting as it may be to follow Abe as Japan’s next leader, it is possible that Suga might choose to simplify his life in the foreign and security domains by focusing less on pushing new initiatives and more on continuing those started by Abe. This could mean continuing to advocate the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept created by Abe. Tangentially, it also could mean continuing to maintain, if not strengthen, security ties with likeminded partners, particularly the Quad framework with India, Australia, and the United States. It also could mean working with the United States. Finally, it could mean continuing the trend of building a more capable Japanese Self-Defense Force in terms of its capabilities, force posture, legal interpretations, and interoperability with the United States. 

Doing so may even pay dividends politically, given the Japanese public appears to approve of the trajectory set by Abe. According to a March 2020 poll conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 85 percent of Japanese either fully or somewhat agreed that the security environment in East Asia has gotten worse. The same poll found that not only did 69 percent of Japanese express a positive evaluation of the U.S.-Japan security structure, 79 percent felt U.S.-Japan relations should be strengthened most in national security. And 75 percent expressed a positive evaluation of the Abe administration’s activities to proactively construct a broad network and strengthen Japan’s presence in international society. 

Suga is no doubt a skillful politician. Whether he becomes an effective prime minister remains to be seen. Abe appears to have left behind a strategy for handling the security challenges facing Japan. Continuing them or not will be one of Suga’s first critical decisions.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.