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Remembering Abe and Japan's Rise

12 July 2022

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor:  It is not an overstatement to say that the late prime minister Shinzo Abe single-handedly promoted Japan's regional and international profile through unconventional economic and security policies. Abe linked his country's economic policies with security and strategic twists in its relations with the rest of the world, ASEAN in particular.

For his supporters, Abe was a visionary Japanese leader who wanted to see his country as a great power that could stand on par with other greats such as the US, China, Russia, and the European Union (EU). In addition, given the uncertainty in the global strategic landscape, Abe also desired to increase Japan's capability to impact the regional and international rule of law and orders. Japan wants to sustain the stability and prosperity that had propelled the Land of the Rising Sun to world economic power status.

To accomplish these objectives, Abe knew he had to fix Japan's long-standing recession and slow growth. Tokyo had to also remain economically strong -- it is currently the world's No.3 economy. Furthermore, the country had to feel secure enough in a disruptive world. His signature economic policy, known as Abenomics, aimed to rejuvenate Japan's economy through monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms, which have continued under various disguises even though the measures have yielded mixed results.

The current government under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, while he has opted for his new capitalism plan, has not yet disregarded Abe's approaches.

Apart from strengthening the US-Japan alliance and ties with the EU, during Abe's eight years in office, he also pushed for closer ties with ASEAN in all dimensions. Japan proposed the Indo-Pacific strategy, which was quickly picked up by the US and its allies and friends. To him, strong ties with ASEAN provided much-needed stability in the region, which eventually would benefit Japan's own economic development, especially now when the global strategic landscape is in a state of flux.

His idea of a "Proactive Contribution to Peace" has served Japan's diplomatic pathway for the past decade and its development and security-related measures were utilised to promote overall international stability. His successor, Mr Kishida has continued this trajectory.

For detractors, Abe's hawkish approaches and policies have been criticised both at home and abroad as a sinister scheme to militarise the country and serve the US's strategic vision. Under his leadership, Japan has expanded its security role. Most importantly, he reinterpreted the pacifist constitution to allow the Self-Defense forces to enable the use of collective self-defence including defending allies even without an attack on Japan.

After Sunday's fresh electoral victory, the Liberal Democratic Party will continue Abe's dream of making Japan stronger and being able to protect its security and sovereignty. Now, Abe's long-held dream of reforming its American-written constitution could become a reality. It also could be a prelude to the so-called 'come-to-aid duty' for the Self-Defense Forces.

In hindsight, Abe's contribution was significant in developing a long-term vision to engage the international security community in building an atmosphere for peace and in pursuance of international rules-based policies. In previous administrations, Japan was timid. Abe changed that with his idea of ensuring the US security presence in the region. His personal ties with former US President Donald Trump had a good impact on sustaining US commitment to the region despite US disengagement in economic areas.

That also helps explain why Japan was extremely critical of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Tokyo has been very consistent in condemning Russia's action. Mr Kishida himself has reiterated time and again that the conflict has had negative repercussions which the international community must not tolerate in order to prevent other countries coming under fire in a similar way. Japan's ongoing anti-Russia stance at multilateral forums including Asean-related summits, ie, G20 and APEC, is highly visible.

During Abe's tenure, he visited all Asean members twice. He also hosted the Asean-Japan summit where reiterated the heart-to-heart approach of his predecessor, former prime minister Takeo Fukuda. One of Abe's legacies will be the WA Project launched in 2013, which is a testimony to his conviction to promote this pathway.

Furthermore, he strengthened strategic ties with ASEAN, especially Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Next year, Japan and ASEAN are commemorating the 50th anniversary of their relations. To provide further impetus to bilateral ties with ASEAN and as part of the commemorations, it is possible that Japan's strategic dialogue partner status could be changed to comprehensive strategic dialogue partner upon an expression of intent.

For Thailand and the Thais, he occupied a special place as he introduced a visa waiver for Thailand in July 2013. For the record, that year, only 450,000 Thais visited Japan. The decision was a clever move as the number of Thai tourists shot up several-fold in the next six years. Before the Covid-19 pandemic stuck, nearly 1.3 million Thais flew to Japan in 2019.

With visa-free entry, Japan became the world's most popular country to visit for Thais, for whom six of the 10 cities on the must-visit list are in Japan -- Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Sapporo, and Hiroshima. Around 250 flights weekly were also available between the two countries' various cities during the peak tourist season before the pandemic.

It is imperative to highlight Abe's visa waiver as both countries were almost unable to sign the Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement (JTEPA) in April 2007 as Tokyo refused to yield to Bangkok's request for the visa-free issue to be included in the trade deal. It was one of two conditions that stood in the way. The other was to permit Thai masseurs to work in Japan. This profession is reserved only for Japanese citizens, especially senior and disabled citizens. Later on, to conclude the free trade agreement with Japan. The Thai government agreed to drop these two demands.

Truth be told, seven years after JTEPA following Abe's pledge to allow Thai passport holders to enter Japan freely, it took nearly six months of intense consultations among all Japan's agencies before the waiver was implemented. At the time, only two rich ASEAN members, Singapore and Brunei, were granted these privileges. It was well known that tens of thousands of visa overstayers remained in Japan for illegal employment and residence. Each year, the Thai embassy also assisted these overstaying workers in returning home providing financial assistance and air tickets.

Abe's legacies will continue to guide Japan's future in both domestic and external affairs. For ASEAN, he has left a memorable imprint that allows Japan to engage the region in a comprehensive and strategic manner.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in The Bangkok Post.   Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

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