Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (centre) wearing a face mask, speaks, during the country's coronavirus task force meeting at his official residence in Tokyo Thursday, April 16, 2020. Image Credit: AP

This coming Saturday (August 15) marks the 75th anniversary of Victory over Japan (VJ Day) that finally brought closure to the Second World War. While Japan was a major US foe then, today Tokyo’s importance in the Western alliance is of significant, and growing, strategic importance again.

Not only is Japan a longstanding member of Western clubs such as the G7. There is also growing policy speculation that it could be invited to join the so-called ‘5 Eyes’ intelligence alliance which currently comprises Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

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A key part of the rationale for Japan’s growing geopolitical importance is that, just like the start of the Cold War, it is perceived in the West as a key bulwark against the advance of China and potentially Russia into Asia-Pacific. Yet, while much emphasis is put on the security pillar of the Japanese-Western alliance, economics is important too.

Since the end of the Second World War, the gradual transformation of Japan’s world role stemmed, in part, from its phenomenal post-war business success which led to growing calls for it to match its economic power with commitment to international political relations too. Today, it remains one of the world’s largest three economies, and it will be critical to helping rejuvenate global economic growth after the shock of the coronavirus crisis.

Outside of the United States, many other Western countries, including in Europe, particularly welcome Japan’s invigorated commitment to international trade. Not only did Tokyo sign last year a bilateral agreement with Washington, it has committed recently too to a EU-Japan trade agreement covering around a third of global GDP and almost 650 million people. Moreover, Tokyo was at the vanguard of the so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership last year with 11 Asia-Pacific and Americas nations which account for around 13% of global trade and a combined population of around 500 million.

One of the reasons Europe particularly appreciates Japan’s defence of international trade, and indeed a wider ‘rules-based world order’, is the Trump administration’s equivocation on these issues. The Tokyo-hosted G20 summit last year saw trade being given a key focus, despite the fact that this issue caused much contention between Trump and other world leaders at previous G20 meetings, including in Germany in 2018 which saw a clash between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the president with the latter pushing for protectionist language to be inserted into the end-of-summit communiqué.

Abe has sought to align his long-standing foreign policy plans around that of Trump’s agenda and he has significantly increased defence spending.


Beyond these structural factors driving Japanese international policy, Shinzo Abe -- now the longest serving prime minister in the nation’s history -- has proven personally very adept at consolidating relationships with Western leaders. This includes Trump who during the 2016 election campaign was critical of Tokyo.

Abe spotted this danger and became the first foreign leader to meet the president after his shock victory four years ago. Since then, Abe appears to have forged a significant personal bond with the mercurial president to fortify US-Japan ties in the face of significant international uncertainty.

Abe has been one of the few foreign leaders, for instance, to agree a trade deal with Trump. This has helped neutralise the president’s previous criticism of what he characterised as Japan’s unfair trade practices involving car imports and exports; and his accusations that Tokyo was using monetary policy to devalue its currency to boost exporters.

Moreover, Trump has repeatedly highlighted the strong US commitment to the security of Japan and said that the relationship is the “cornerstone of peace” in Asia-Pacific. This despite his ‘America First’ philosophy, and his 2016 assertions that the bilateral relationship had become too one-sided with Japan needed to undertake more financial burden-sharing in international security.

This deepening of US-Japanese ties reflects bilateral concerns about a range of issues, including North Korea. Yet, the major driver in increasing close US-Japan ties is China.

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In this fluid geopolitical landscape, Abe has sought to align his long-standing foreign policy plans around that of Trump’s agenda and he has significantly increased defence spending. Building from last year’s US-Japan trade deal, in a context whereby the president appears to want a more internationally assertive Tokyo, the prime minister would now like to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country’s post-1945 pacifist security identity so that it can become more externally engaged.

One big, specific measure Abe wishes to push for is abolition of Article Nine. This is the clause in Japan’s post-war constitution which constrains the country’s military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defence spending has most often remained below 1% of GDP for much of the period since 1945.

To overturn this, Abe needs not just a two thirds majority in both chambers of the legislature, but also a simple majority in a national referendum. While he continues to push for this as part of his legacy, it may yet prove an insuperable obstacle even for the skilled, veteran prime minister given the large body of Japanese public opinion which still values its post-war pacifism in the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons.

— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics