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Thursday, September 03, 2020
Shinzo Abe's Resignation and Its Impact on Japan-China Relations

On August 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation as Prime Minister of Japan due to health reasons. It was not long ago that Abe went to hospital for medical examinations twice due to illness. The announcement of Abe’s resignation on the one hand confirmed the outside world’s concerns about his health condition and the other hand, the sudden resignation of Abe disrupted Japan’s political arrangements and brought unexpected shocks to the market. It is worth mentioning that when Abe was the Prime Minister in 2007, he resigned for the first time because of worsening ulcerative colitis. This time, the recurrence of the disease is believed to be even more serious. Japan is therefore, entering the "post-Abe" era.

Abe's sudden resignation will have varying degrees of impact on the political situation in Japan, East Asia, and the world. The impact on Japan-China relations is particularly worthy of attention, and ANBOUND’s geopolitical team has specially discussed the possibility of future political changes in Japan.

If Abe is unable to continue in performing his duties as Prime Minister due to medical reasons, according to Article 9 of the Japanese Cabinet Law, the Minister of State designated by him in advance will temporarily perform the duties of the Prime Minister; this could be Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso who is also the Minister of Finance, or the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Yet, Abe said that he would remain in office until the new Prime Minister (that is, the new head of the Liberal Democratic Party) is elected. He also said that although he is resigning as the Prime Minister, he does not intend to withdraw from politics. This means that Abe, as the most influential "big man" within the Liberal Democratic Party, will maintain a position of importance due to his influence on Japanese policy and Japanese politics. Abe’s Hosoda faction has also stated that it will follow Abe’s ideas in the election of the new president. The latter is currently the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party. After Abe's resignation, Japan will start the election of the party leader within the Liberal Democratic Party, and then the new Prime Minister will be elected by the National Diet (because the Liberal Democratic Party has a majority in the Diet). The term of the new Prime Minister elected will end on Abe’s original term in September 2021.

On August 30, according to Kyodo News, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga decided to run for president of the Liberal Democratic Party. Allegedly, Suga Yoshihide has told the Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai that he plans to participate in the election of the Democratic Party president. Yoshihide Suga was born in 1948 and is currently the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan. He is also the right-hand man of Prime Minister Abe, who joined the Abe cabinet when Abe first became Prime Minister in September 2006. He had previously stated that he "will not stand in the election", but at present, this appears to be just a political rhetoric, which confirms that Abe's resignation is indeed something that was not planned. As Abe's most capable assistant, Yoshihide Suga is also Abe's heir. Under the circumstances of this special election, this will be an important influence on the results of the election, and Yoshihide Suga, supported by the Hosoda faction and the Nikai faction, can basically ensure the victory of this special election. If he is elected as the new Prime Minister of Japan, the general direction of Japanese policy will follow the path pointed out by Abe.

The sudden resignation of Prime Minister Abe is an unexpected event for China-Japan relations, and it will have a considerable impact on the geopolitical situation that China is currently facing. In the gradual deterioration of China's international relations in the past two years, Japan-China relations is a rare bilateral relationship that is steadily improving. Regarding the improvement of Japan-China relations, Abe is undoubtedly the most dominant player in Japan, and he has been doing his best to promote President Xi Jinping's visit to Japan. However, Japan-China's relations might deviate from the original plan due to Abe's resignation. On the other hand, Abe’s choice to resign less than a year before leaving office may also show that Abe is facing political pressures within Japan. If so, it may imply that Japan has strong negative views on its relations with China.

As the ANBOUND’s team pointed out in the article "Japanese Diplomacy in the Post-Abe Era", the Japanese government's China policy has seen a number of influences, with the Hong Kong issue and the Diaoyu Islands issue being the most obvious ones where there are strong voices against China in Japan. Under such context and the deterioration of U.S.-China relations, whoever takes over as the Japanese Prime Minister must face considerable pressure on improving Japan-China relations. Since the beginning of this year, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan has not been possible. Now Abe’s sudden departure has made the important diplomatic activity of President Xi’s visit to Japan even more uncertain. The Japan-China summit will also not be able to take place until Japan elects a new Prime Minister. Even if President Xi’s visit to Japan takes place after the Japanese election, since the term of Japan’s new Prime Minister is less than one year, whether the diplomatic intent reached at the meeting between the two heads of state will remain highly uncertain.

In the midst of geopolitical turmoil, the importance of improving Japan-China relations is self-evident and reflected in many aspects. First, the improvement of Japan-China relations will contribute to the formation of a "1+3" economic and trade cooperation framework. "1+3" is the geo-economic cooperation framework proposed by ANBOUND under the trend of anti-globalization. The goal is that under the context of anti-globalization, China, Germany, and Japan can form trade-related interests and maintain a kind of unified front that maintains the concept of globalization, so that they can reserve greater market space. Second, the improvement of Japan-China relations enables China to gain a better foothold in the context of the deterioration of the geopolitical environment. At present, the U.S.’s suppression of China has gone to extremes and it has developed to a complete decoupling regardless of economic interests. As the Hong Kong issue and the South China Sea issue continue brewing, the international environment facing China cannot be improved within the short term. After Abe leaves the office, if Japan’s successor no longer adheres to Abe’s diplomatic vision, Japan-China relations will face a new turn. It should also be pointed out that Yoshihide Suga's announcement of his candidacy may be "positive" news for China, because he may continue treading Abe's path. For China, an important policy goal is to hope that Japan's policy concerning China will not undergo fundamental changes. If Yoshihide Suga can win this election and win again in next year's election, it will be a favorable message for China.

The resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe due to health reasons has had a sudden impact on the international geopolitical situation. Abe's resignation has brought a lot of uncertainties to Japan-China relations. The continual improvement in the relations between the two countries during the second half of Abe's tenure may also face interruptions because of this. If the chances for the improvement of Japan-China relations are allowed to slip away, it would be detrimental to China.

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