Shinzo Abe and his struggle with Xi Jinping

The Shinzo Abe era has also been the Xi Jinping era. The current leaders of Japan and China took power within weeks of each other. Mr Abe was elected as prime minister of Japan in December 2012 at the age of 58. Just a month earlier, Mr Xi had been appointed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist party, at age 59.

This was more than a coincidence of timing. Mr Abe’s central task — as described by his closest advisers — was to strengthen Japan to cope with an increasingly powerful and authoritarian China.

The Japanese prime minister is now stepping down due to ill health, with his task incomplete. He has played a difficult hand with some skill and determination. But the uncomfortable truth is that Japan’s strategic dilemma cannot be resolved by Tokyo alone. In the end, the country’s fate may depend on political developments that are beyond its control — in the US and in Mr Xi’s China.

During the Xi era, it has become clear that China is intent on becoming the dominant power in Asia — and, perhaps, the world. Worryingly for any government in Tokyo, modern Chinese nationalism is suffused with anti-Japanese sentiment — dating back to Japan’s invasion and brutalisation of China in the 1930s. The two countries still have a territorial dispute and their planes and ships often challenge each other, around the islands that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyu.

Any Japanese prime minister shaping a response to a rising China has to work with unpromising raw material. Japan’s population is ageing and shrinking and the country’s national debt is colossal. China’s economy became larger than that of Japan a decade ago and continues to grow at a faster rate. Beijing is pouring money into new warships and missiles at a pace that Japan cannot match.

China also faces a demographic challenge, as its own population ages. But the fact remains that the Chinese population is more than 10 times the size of Japan’s — and the asymmetry in power between the two nations grows wider every year. Pacifist sentiment is also deeply embedded in Japan. Changing the Japanese constitution to allow his country’s troops to fight overseas has proved to be politically impossible for Mr Abe.

Faced with these realities, it would be tempting for a Japanese government to adopt a policy of appeasement of Beijing. But any such policy would eventually come at a heavy price in Japanese freedom and autonomy.

It is far from clear that China’s territorial ambitions would stop at the uninhabited Senkaku-Diaoyu islands. There are think-tanks and government-backed newspapers in Beijing that have also questioned Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa — which has a population of 1.4m and which hosts America’s most important military base in the region. More broadly, many Chinese nationalists would love to gain a symbolic revenge for the 1930s by relegating Japan to the level of a tributary state.

Understanding all this, Mr Abe has not made any concessions on the islands dispute. He knows that any unilateral step backwards would be seen in Beijing as a symbolic act of submission.

But, even as he has stood firm on the islands, Mr Abe has managed to ease tensions with president Xi. The Japanese prime minister paid a successful visit to Beijing last December. Mr Xi was due to pay a state visit to Japan this year but it was delayed by Covid-19.

It would be foolish to assume that this improvement in relations is permanent. Facing difficulties with the US over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea — Mr Xi could be seeking a temporary rapprochement with Japan. China may also sniff the possibility of eventually luring Japan towards a more neutral stance in Beijing’s own struggle with Washington. If US President Donald Trump continues to threaten Japan with trade sanctions, and to cast doubt on the US-Japan alliance, anti-American sentiment could rise in Japan.

The erratic nature of the Trump presidency has certainly made life more difficult for Mr Abe. One of Mr Trump’s first acts as president was to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a multinational trade deal the Abe government had put huge energy into negotiating. Rather than go away and sulk, Mr Abe threw his energies into rebuilding relations with the White House and re-creating the TPP as a new deal (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), with all the original signatories bar America.

Mr Abe was the first foreign leader through the door of Trump Tower to congratulate the president after his election victory in 2016. His slightly obsequious posture may have been humbling, but it served a broader strategic purpose.

At the same time, Mr Abe has cultivated new friends — in particular, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India. Japan is promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, in which the region’s democracies work together. The implied contrast is with a closed and authoritarian Asia-Pacific that might emerge if Chinese power is uncontested.

Mr Abe has made many of the right strategic moves for his country. But he leaves office without knowing whether his efforts will ultimately be crowned with success. Responding to the rise of China is a generational challenge for Japan. Mr Abe’s successors will need luck, as well as skill, to navigate an uncertain future.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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