In reflecting on the shocking death of Abe Shinzo, Alejandro Reyes of the Asia Global Institute observes that, by linking his domestic policy reforms to foreign policy ambitions, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister underscored the importance of “cultivating one’s own garden” to bolster international credibility, effectiveness and leadership. This holds lessons for other countries including China and the United States.
Sayonara to a statesman: Abe, pictured here at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 2016, showed that by attending to domestic challenges first, he could then strengthen Japan’s diplomatic and strategic posture regionally and globally (Credit: Anthony Quintano)
Since the assassination of Abe Shinzo, who was the longest-serving prime minister of Japan (in two terms from 2006 to 2007 and then from 2012 to 2020), commentators outside Japan have focused on his regional and global legacy. Many have noted that he was the progenitor of the “Indo-Pacific” idea, which dated back to a speech he gave in India in 2007, though he did not specifically mention the principle of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) until another address he delivered in 2018. The FOIP construction may indeed be Abe’s lasting imprint on the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. The ultimate seal of approval for the concept came from the United States which adopted it as its own, going so far as to use the term “Indo-Pacific” in renaming the American armed forces command and launching a flagship economic framework for the region.
But before he was preaching about the FOIP, Abe was focused on promoting his domestic economic plan, dubbed “Abenomics”, which he linked to his desire for Japan to play a more prominent role in the world. The Abenomics suite of policies were characterized as three arrows, pointed imagery that attracted not a few derisive comments about what at first seemed to be a fuzzy agenda – fiscal expansion, monetary easing and structural reform. The immediate goal: to boost domestic demand and GDP growth, while raising inflation to above 2 percent. The challenge: coping with the implications of Japan’s ageing demographics, particularly its flagging productivity.
With the first two arrows, Abe arguably managed to shoot straight – and garner some results. The fiscal stimulus and monetary easing in tandem were meant to break the economy out of its deflationary doldrums, pushing GDP growth out of its meandering flatness and up to 2 percent, while pulling inflation up to 2 percent. In 2009, Japan was wallowing in a deflation rate of 1.4 percent, but between 2013 and 2019 managed to achieve an inflation rate of nearly 1 percent. Abe had his ally Kuroda Haruhiko, the governor of the Bank of Japan, for his dogged determination to stick to easy-money policies, even as other major developed economies were unwinding or reining in their post-global financial crisis quantitative easing. The pump priming had consequences – Japan’s public debt has climbed to over 200 percent of GDP, the highest of any developed economy. In April this year, Japan’s inflation did finally rise above the longstanding 2 percent target, helped by the increase in energy and food prices prompted by the Ukraine war and supply-chain constraints.
From the launch of Abenomics, the third arrow – implementing structural reforms – was rightly identified as the hardest shot to set off and the most likely to miss the necessary targets. The Abe government aimed to slash business regulations, liberalize the labor market and agricultural sector, cut corporate taxes, expand trade partnerships, and increase workforce diversity. The latter goal inspired a portmanteau program of its own – “womenomics”, a plan to raise the workforce participation rate among women from 68 percent to 73 percent by 2020. To this end, the government required companies to increase the number of women in management, setting the goal of a third of senior positions by 2020 but later reducing that to a more manageable 15 percent.
“His government demonstrated leadership in two key areas which no prior postwar administration was willing to tackle: corporate governance and womenomics,” wrote Kathy Matsui, one of the leading advocates in Japan for women’s empowerment in the workplace, in a tribute to Abe posted on LinkedIn. “On the former, introduction of the Stewardship Code and Corporate Governance Code were critical to protecting minority shareholders’ interests and driving a greater focus on [environmental, social and governance] ESG principles. On the latter, there’s obviously work to be done in promoting more women leaders, but it was the first time the government focused on gender diversity as an imperative for economic growth.”
On these two fronts, Abe’s government aimed to address two longstanding deficiencies in Japan’s flawed single-dominant-party democracy – the rights of small investors in a market where corporate governance has not been known to meet global best practices, and the rights of women in a society in which cultural norms and rules have hampered their advancement (Japan has consistently ranked low on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, coming in at 116th among 146 countries in the newly released 2022 report, the lowest of the major advanced economies).
As for expanding trade partnerships as a way to drive new growth, Abe was particularly successful. His government led the way in picking up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after US president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the pact soon after taking office in 2017. Abe convinced the other 10 remaining signatories to regroup and conclude the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which entered into force in the ratifying countries at the end of 2018. Japan was one of the early beneficiaries of the pact. Tokyo was also involved in the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the ASEAN- and China-led trade arrangement which was signed in November 2020 and came into effect at the beginning of 2022.
Japan was arguably in a better position to take the lead on the CPTPP (of which China is not a member but has applied to join) and move forward with RCEP because it was taking stock and addressing longstanding economic and structural challenges at home. Indeed, Abe recognized that for Japan to take a more robust stance in its foreign economic and strategic policies on the regional and international stages, it had to put its own house in better order to snap its economy out of its years of stagnancy and hone its global competitiveness. Abe understood that Japan’s ability to pursue a stronger role in asserting the FOIP vision in the context of the growing economic and strategic power and influence of China and the simmering great-power competition depended on its domestic disposition. For example, agricultural reforms were crucial to Japan’s ability to make commitments at the TPP table. (The prospect of the TPP helped Abe push the resistant agricultural lobby to agree to reforms.)
While the verdict on Abenomics is mixed, the governance lesson is clear. In the two-level game of domestic politics and international relations, “it is necessary to cultivate one’s own garden” (to borrow from the idle old man sitting outside his house in Voltaire’s satirical novella Candide, or Optimism) and indeed, in the sequencing of policy, the domestic has to take precedence. The global financial crisis of 2008-09, the sooner-than-anticipated brutal impact of climate change, the devastating pandemic, and now the Ukraine war are global shocks that have exposed the failings of every economy – poor infrastructure, weak governance, rampant corruption, the lack of regulation, abuses of human rights, the exclusion of women and the marginalized, deficiencies in the education system, dependency on potentially unreliable markets or inimical trading partners, the severe deterioration of trust in government, and the spread of misinformation and disinformation, among many problems.
Put off addressing these dysfunctions for too long and a country could veer towards system collapse – possibly abetted by disastrous adventurism abroad aimed at distracting the public from the immediate challenges at home. China’s ongoing struggle with Covid-19 has revealed the social strains and economic pains resulting from the rigidity of the country’s authoritarian order, the frailties of its healthcare system, and the pitfalls of nationalism, certainly when it comes to vaccines.
The United States is perhaps the most glaring and worrying case of a polity that sorely needs a domestic overhaul, a wholesale rebooting of its operating system, if it is to stem the perception of, if not actual, decline. To his credit, from the beginnings of his campaign to the earliest days of his presidency, Joe Biden linked his domestic program with his country’s ability to lead abroad. “There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” he said in remarks at the US State Department on February 4, 2021, just two weeks after taking office. “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind. Advancing a foreign policy for the middle class demands urgent focus on our domestic economic renewal.”
Competition bills making their way through US Congress are cast as efforts to address American competitiveness shortcomings but are largely motivated by a desire to decouple from or stifle China, notably through the diversification of supply chains, near-shoring, or “friend-shoring”, with particular attention to strategically important items such as semiconductors, and to investing in basic and advanced technology research aimed at countering rapid Chinese advances. US legislators have recognized that the country’s domestic infrastructure required significant repairs and renewal, prompting the passage and signing into law of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act with bipartisan support. Providing US$550 billion in new spending over five years, the law will modernize the nation’s roads, bridges, transit, rail, ports, airports, broadband, and drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.
But for the US, these measures would seem only to be the first line of a lengthy and broad reform agenda. Take a fundamental development indicator such as life expectancy, which because of inequality and healthcare inadequacy (the pandemic was a key factor) fell from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.60 years in 2021. Successive American administrations have failed to address deep-seated internal social and economic disparities that lie at the root of rising protectionist sentiment. This has, in turn, hampered the ability of the US to provide strong leadership in global standard setting through participation in major bilateral and international trade agreements such as the TPP.
The most obvious and urgent challenges for the US are the corrosion of American democracy and the divisions in society ginned up by culture wars over guns and God, political gridlock and take-no-prisoners competition between the two parties, and plummeting trust in leaders. Anomalies, malfunctions and distortions of the electoral system, from gerrymandering to voter suppression, have entrenched incumbents, allowed minority rule, disenfranchised voters, and handed the presidency to candidates who did not win the popular vote. The January 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington was a gut-punch warning of the dire straits into which American democracy is sinking.
In 2021, the International IDEA think tank in Stockholm put the US on its annual list of “backsliding” democracies for the first time. “The United States is a high-performing democracy, and even improved its performance in indicators of impartial administration (corruption and predictable enforcement) in 2020,” said Alexander Hudson, a co-author of the report. “However, the declines in civil liberties and checks on government indicate that there are serious problems with the fundamentals of democracy.” Added International IDEA secretary general Kevin Casas-Zamora: “The visible deterioration of democracy in the United States, as seen in the increasing tendency to contest credible election results, the efforts to suppress participation [in elections], and the runaway polarization, is one of the most concerning developments.”
The US mid-term elections in November will be a major stress test of the system in advance of the 2024 presidential polls. With the Congress unable to take any action on voting rights, election campaign reform, and even on ensuring the proper and legal allocation of electoral votes and with a conservative originalist-heavy Supreme Court that has begun actually to take rights away from individuals, there is little prospect for the enactment of urgently needed measures to secure American democracy – and thereby bolster US standing and leadership abroad.
The descent of the United States to become a corrupted democracy, where a constitutional framework allows untrammeled minority rule, is not just a possible scenario; it is happening and is a clear and present danger. The disruptiveness of the previous administration of Donald Trump have made Washington’s traditional allies and partners eager to join the US under multilateralist Biden in its campaigns against Russia and China, identified by the West as their main strategic threats. The prospect of a return of Trump or a Trumpist – potentially as unpredictable but smarter and more disciplined – looms large. Surely, in foreign ministries around the world, policy planners and strategic foresight analysts are pondering what to do if the US’s failure to cultivate its most untidy garden yields a bitter harvest.
Abe Shinzo, for his part, reaped a deadly whirlwind. While it appears that his killing was not due to anger at his policies but was motivated by a personal grievance that did not have anything to do with him, he paid the ultimate price for his prominence and successful political leadership. During his tenure at the pinnacle of Japanese politics, he imparted a valuable lesson for other leaders, including in the US and China, in these challenging times: To gain respect and influence abroad requires seriously tending to your home patch first and in a thorough way, especially if the cultivation required is long overdue and nasty weeds threaten to choke the garden.
Kato, Yoshikazu. (November 21, 2019) “Abe Power and the US-China Cold War”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Reyes, Alejandro. (June 17, 2021) “Biden’s Build Back Better World: Making Multilateralism Great Again?”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Shlapentokh, Dmitry. (June 29, 2021) "The New 'Cold War' – and Why the US Cannot Win It", AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong