Abe's foreign triumphs lost on the domestic front

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2007, 12:00am

Japanese PM boosted Beijing ties but struggled at home

If departing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was judged only on his foreign efforts, he would probably still be in power.

In less than a year, Mr Abe managed to finesse markedly improved relations with the mainland - now its biggest trading partner - while asserting a new Japanese nationalism and strengthening traditional alliances. With the vigour of being Japan's youngest post-war premier, Mr Abe, 55, within days of taking office, also led a robust international response to North Korea's first nuclear test last October.

But domestically, Mr Abe inherited a voting public weaned on five years of the reforms and charisma of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. With Mr Koizumi gone, his ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party reverted to type. The habitual factionalism and suspicion of economic or political reform returned, leaving Mr Abe with an entirely different legacy to ponder: the historic defeat in recent Upper House elections that gave control to the Democratic Party of Japan and its hard-boiled leader, Ichiro Ozawa.

For weeks, Mr Abe had been branded a 'dead body' - a sumo wrestler on the verge of collapse. But it was Mr Ozawa's refusal to meet Mr Abe yesterday to discuss opposition plans to block extensions of Japan's military support of international efforts in Afghanistan that saw him throw in the towel. His voice wavering, Mr Abe yesterday insisted he had no choice but to resign, despite a recent cabinet reshuffle.

'It has become difficult for me to secure the people's support and trust to vigorously implement policies,' he said, his boyish good looks replaced with weary resignation.

Mr Abe had been expected to go before the end of the year - low poll results generally don't presage a recovery in Japan - but few expected it quite this soon.

The Liberal Democratic Party is by far Japan's biggest political grouping, yet any successor faces the very real prospect of having to rely on minor parties to ensure its continued grip on power in any fresh national election. Some political insiders in Tokyo now believe that successor will have to call that election soon to limit the damage from Mr Ozawa continuing to stall and drag down legislation. The political uncertainty in the world's second largest economy looks set to continue for some time.

The frontrunner in that internal succession race is Mr Abe's foreign minister, Taro Aso. He is expected to be confirmed on Wednesday. Like Mr Abe, he is a blue-blooded member of the LDP's right-wing elite. Like Mr Abe, he has been outspokenly hawkish on mainland relations and nagging historical issues.

But Mr Aso, even more so than Mr Abe, has curbed his more extreme instincts and worked hard on the nuts and bolts of not just restoring but improving relations with Beijing. Despite widespread support for better ties from influential business groups and voters, Mr Koizumi's tenure brought new tensions amid his repeated visits to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo.

Mr Abe - whose grandfather served in Japan's war-time cabinet and was later detained as a war criminal but released without trial - was an even more eager visitor to the shrine. But, picking up on deftly laid signals from Beijing, he did not publicly visit as prime minister.

Having been quietly courted by mainland diplomats before taking power, Mr Abe made a show of making Beijing his first foreign visit after taking office. Relations have blossomed during repeat meetings with the mainland leadership, with progress being made in a variety of political, cultural and even military exchanges. Premier Wen Jiabao visited in April and President Hu Jintao recently formally invited Mr Abe to return before the end of the year.

Weathering the uncertainty of the next few months will put the strength of that restored friendship to the test, and envoys in both capitals can be expected to try to keep old suspicions from triggering a new freeze.

Just as Beijing showed diplomatic maturity in sending clear signals to Mr Abe, he showed his dexterity by driving new mainland ties while boosting more traditional ones. Mr Abe expanded diplomatic relations with India and forged a new security pact with Australia under the guise of boosting friendships with like-minded democracies. His repeated calls for Japan to return to a more 'normal' military footing after decades of official pacifism was music to the ears of US military planners.

His departure, too, comes at a crucial moment in the international effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons and to drag Pyongyang into the light. The six-nation deal hammered out in February is gradually coming to fruition - raising fresh hopes of a formal peace and diplomatic normalisation between North Korea and Japan, the US and South Korea. Some diplomats, however, believe Mr Abe's departure may create room for fresh momentum in Tokyo's dealings with Pyongyang.

After just a year in office, Mr Abe leaves dashed expectations in his wake across the region. He is hardly the first leader to leave office more popular abroad than a home.