The Japanese Art of Diplomacy in Shinzo Abe’s Era

On 12th June, headlines around the world covered a historically important subject – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Iran. Seeking to ease tensions between the United States and Iran, the visit to Tehran was considered peculiar, since it was the first of its kind undertaken by a Japanese leader in 41 years.

The visit was considered to be one of the most ambitious diplomatic projects undertaken by a Japanese leader in history. However, Abe’s historic attempt to ease aggregating tensions was overshadowed by attacks against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which Washington claims were carried out by none other than its enemy number one; Iran. Today, the Middle-East is more volatile than ever. Instead of clamping down on tensions, more rise with every passing day. What was considered to be a ‘historic visit’ soon turned into failure for Japan’s novice diplomacy in the international arena.

Despite the outcome of the meeting, this visit is an important indication that shows us that, unlike his predecessors, Japan’s third-longest-serving leader is ready to play an active role in foreign politics. Japan’s political spectrum of the past highlights the instability of leaders and their lack of structured foreign policy activism. If we take into account the country’s previous premiers, it will be much easier to understand that we are discussing a stark issue. It is extremely difficult to identify Prime Ministers who have served more than a single term in office. The absence of continuity in Japan has become a serious hurdle for the country’s presence and activities in the international political agenda.

Despite witnessing the same problem in his first term in 2006, Shinzo Abe made an unusual step to develop both domestic and international policies, starting from the inception of his second term in 2012. After he was elected, Abe concentrated on internal issues such as economy, better known as ‘Abenomics’, education and population growth. These policies were important for his immediate political survivability, and essential in diverting an early 2006-esque defeat. Another pivotal development of Abe’s second era was the increase in international activity. Shinzo Abe showed the world that he was ready to transform Tokyo into an important player in the international arena.

During the first two years of his second term, Shinzo Abe visited nearly 50 countries, proving that he really wanted to become a foreign policy hawk. Abe tried to improve relations not only with Japan’s immediate neighbors, but also with other partners around the globe. Abe’s first challenge was maintaining a dialogue with the most influential neighbors within the region such as China and South Korea. Besides bilateral meetings, the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit also gained momentum. The Japanese premier also focused on strengthening terms with other dominant players such as ASEAN member states by visiting coordinating routine trips.

Despite these positive achievements, relations with North Korea continue to remain a Pandora’s Box for Abe. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s openness to dialogue bore fruit through radical diplomatic activism as we saw in 2018. Kim held several talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Moon Jae-In but Shinzo Abe couldn’t obtain the same opportunity, despite showing his willingness. On 2nd May this year, Abe said he would meet Kim Jong-Un ‘unconditionally’, but his call fell on deaf ears, as Pyongyang failed to reply. Considering the developments in play, a future meeting between Abe and Kim could be crucial for the Premier to remain relevant in a key issue that impacts not only its very own region, but also the entire world.

Shinzo Abe’s execution of his hawkish diplomacy can also be seen in other parts of the globe besides East Asia. Abe maintained a close relationship with the United States during Barack Obama’s presidency and continues to do so with incumbent Donald Trump. Trump’s latest visit to Japan in May 2019 was perhaps the most symbolically important one, as Abe managed to promote various parts of daily Japanese life to Trump. Trump’s keen involvement in Japanese culture gave birth to new terminologies such as ‘Sumo Diplomacy’. Abe enjoyed diplomatic activism in the American continent thanks to his previous visits to the area. His travels also included Europe, a hub of different political ideologies and themes. During his latest European and North American tour, he tried to ease economic tensions between both parts of the world, but returned without achieving any concrete results from his determined trip.

On 28th June, Abe will host the world’s 20 biggest economies in Osaka at the G20 summit. Abe’s main motive at the summit lies in negotiating a breakthrough that would potentially ease ongoing global tensions and crises. According to Abe, this year’s summit will concentrate on free and fair trade, digital economy and pressing environmental challenges. Tensions between Iran and the US, mounting trade wars and the North Korean issue will also be in the spotlight. Time has come for Abe to take hold of an opportunity that could reveal Japan’s hidden potential, not only as a top regional player, but one that shows keen interest in international affairs. His role as a top diplomat will intensify if he manages to successfully tackle some of the aforementioned issues. However, if he fails to obtain any concrete outcomes from this meeting, combined with the latest failure in Iran, it may prove costly for the Japanese leader who is trying to break his shell once and for all in the diplomatic arena.