The surprise resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — the longest-serving prime minister in modern Japanese history and one of Asia’s most influential leaders — has triggered unease in a region where Tokyo has stood firmly against North Korean provocations and Chinese muscle-flexing designed to intimidate American allies.
Regional experts say Mr. Abe’s legacy of elevating Japan as a key backer of U.S. efforts to contain North Korea and to counter China’s rise are unlikely to diminish in the near term, despite the uncertainty about his successor in the weeks to come.
Mr. Abe cited chronic health problems when he announced his resignation Friday.
His departure will deprive President Trump of a well-liked golf partner, but whoever emerges as the next prime minister is expected to maintain Japan’s support for U.S. policies in the region, if only to protect Tokyo’s own interests.
“While Abe’s allegiance to an unassailable alliance ensured its durability, his successor is likely to hew to the same course,” said Patrick Cronin, who holds the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
Although Mr. Abe was a “great ally” to the U.S., Mr. Cronin said, “his commitment has been based on a clear-eyed view of Japanese national interests.”
Mr. Abe espoused a foreign and defense policy that aimed to “maximize the utility of the U.S. alliance but also to accelerate Japanese national capabilities along with networked security with partners like India, Australia, the U.K. and France,” Mr. Cronin said in an interview Monday.
Mr. Abe went to great lengths to personally connect with Mr. Trump. He was the first foreign leader to visit Trump Tower in New York after the 2016 election and was the first leader invited to the president’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.
Still, the prime minister was known to respectfully ignore U.S. policy turns that he felt didn’t fit Japan’s interests.
When Mr. Trump dumped the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal on his first day in office, Mr. Abe seized the reins to forge a regional TPP deal without the U.S., in part as a way to contain China.
“His economic policy was not to settle for a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States, but rather to double down on a Trans-Pacific Partnership minus America,” Mr. Cronin said.
Speculation over who will succeed Mr. Abe is churning in Tokyo. Despite general policy agreements among the likely candidates, a hotly contested, behind-the-scenes debate is expected before the leadership of the prime minister’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is announced.
The Tokyo-based Nikkei Asian Review reported Monday that Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the powerful right-hand man to Mr. Abe, has emerged as the front-runner and even has Mr. Abe’s blessing. But others are likely to compete in a race for LDP president in mid-September. The winner will become prime minister by virtue of the party’s majority in the Japanese parliament, the Diet.
Other prominent candidates include former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, a hawkish former defense minister widely viewed as an Abe rival in the LDP. While all have clout inside Japan’s often opaque political system, none can match the international presence and connections Mr. Abe has built up over two stints as prime minister.
Mr. Abe, whose term ends in September 2021, is expected to stay on until a new party leader is elected. The process is expected to take several weeks.
He became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, at age 52, but his overly nationalistic first stint abruptly ended a year later because of his health. He returned to prominence in the years that followed and emerged again as prime minister in 2012.
In a country otherwise known for its short-tenured prime ministers, Mr. Abe’s sudden departure marks the end of an unusual era of stability in Tokyo.
The Japanese leader struck up strong ties with Mr. Trump and espoused a brand of unapologetic nationalism that riled America’s other major ally in Northeast Asia, South Korea, while setting off alarm bells in North Korea and China.
The North Koreans were relentlessly hostile to the Abe government and regularly launched missiles near and even over Japan, even while Mr. Abe was meeting with Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2017. China was more subtle with its attempts to undermine Mr. Abe, who has a global reputation for playing hardball with Beijing while nurturing delicate diplomatic and economic relations with China.
The Abe government’s nationalism has been a friction point with South Korea, which shares a complicated historical and cultural past with Japan. Relations between Tokyo and Seoul soured during Mr. Abe’s tenure despite their common concern about a nuclear North Korea.
U.S. officials have spent recent months watching closely for signs of antipathy between Japan and South Korea. Late last year, a deep mutual distrust escalated into an open diplomatic clash.
At the time, South Korea’s threat to cancel a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan triggered unease in Washington by throwing into question the three-way alliance that underpins U.S. policy toward North Korea, as well as wider American security architecture across Asia.
The South Koreans ultimately dropped the threat, but frustrations between Tokyo and Seoul soared. Japan intimated that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s China policy was too accommodating, which the Moon administration flatly denied.
Upon announcing his resignation, Mr. Abe expressed regret that he failed to achieve his cherished goal of formally rewriting Japan’s U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution. He publicly lamented Friday how that and other goals have not been met.
“It is gut-wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals,” he told reporters. He mentioned his failure to resolve the issue of Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia dating back to the end of World War II, and a revision of the country’s war-renouncing constitution.
Moral debate has long raged across Japan over whether the constitution, written during American occupation right after World War II, should be revised so the nation can better prepare itself against a rising China and North Korean nuclear threats.
Article 9 of the constitution says the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” It adds that the land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.
That changed in the Abe era. His administration declared its own reinterpretation of the constitution to allow Japanese forces to train for overseas missions, such as U.N. peacekeeping deployments, and to provide defensive support to allies under attack.
The question now, according to some analysts, is whether Japan’s next prime minister will yield to public pressure to pull back internationally in order to focus on domestic economic priorities and the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paul Sracic, a political scientist adviser to Logos Group International on East Asian affairs, said that whoever is chosen to lead in Tokyo will face the challenge of balancing Japan’s competing interests on the world stage and dealing with the inexorable rise of China as an economic and military superpower.
“Japan is in an awkward position when it comes to China,” Mr. Sracic wrote in an analysis published Monday by CNN. “While Japan is increasingly leery of growing Chinese power (hence its need to foster close security ties to the U.S.), it is economically bound to its larger and wealthier neighbor.”
He noted that Mr. Abe walked “a tightrope” in this respect but tipped Tokyo’s balance “in favor of the U.S.”
“It should not be forgotten that a few years before Abe returned to office in 2012, Japan, under the since-dissolved Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, seemed to be moving Japan towards a much closer relationship with China,” Mr. Sracic wrote.
“While Abe’s departure may not seem immediately alarming, it poses a serious challenge to the stability of the region, given China’s dominance,” he added. “While we don’t know who the next leader of Japan will be, we can only hope that he is as committed to the alliance with the U.S. as Abe has been.”