The Paradox of Populist Foreign Policy in Asia
Like-minded foreign partners may seek an America First movement that intervenes more, not less.
When it was announced on July 8 that Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe had succumbed to gunshot wounds, heads of state around the world sent their condolences. Unsurprisingly, two of the first to publicly grieve his passing were India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former U.S. president Donald Trump. Modi, who had seen ties between his country and Japan go from strength to strength under Abe’s rule (2012–2020), tweeted that he had “lost a dear friend,” one who brought about “unprecedented transformation of the strategic partnership between India and Japan.” Trump, whom Abe courted energetically from the November 2016 election, released a statement declaring Abe’s death “really bad news” for the world and for Japan. And when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol eventually sent his acknowledgements, they were, by the standards of a Korean president speaking of a Japanese leader, effusive, expressing “condolences and consolation” to Abe’s family and the Japanese people over the loss of “a respected politician.”
Not only did the departed Japanese prime minister cultivate relationships across the world during his time in office, he established a legacy for cooperation at the international level that will long outlive him. That legacy includes making space for right-populists on the international stage to work together to battle a common threat—the rise of the People’s Republic of China—and uphold international rules and norms even as they combat progressive and liberal ideologies at home.
Modi and Abe are examples of a kind of politics supporters of the “America First” movement will recognize: one that advocates strengthening the nation’s reputation abroad by aggressively asserting its interests and refusing to countenance those who insist it should feel guilt over past, or even ongoing, actions. More recently, South Korea’s Yoon rode a wave of youth discontent, promising to assert Korea’s growing influence, praising right-wing strongmen of the past, and tackling the influence of both China and feminism. All three leaders—Abe, Modi, and Yoon—count among their domestic critics groups America Firsters will recognize: progressive politicians, liberal media institutions, and feminists.
While supporters of former president Trump may sense camaraderie with these three leaders, and share similar views of China’s rise, they must also be ready for a potential outcome that may not be to their liking. Good working relations between a future America First president and likeminded leadership in Tokyo, Delhi, and Seoul may lead to further American commitments in world affairs, including militarily and financially. An important consideration, especially as the definition of America First will be contested between now and the 2024 Republican nomination.
Shinzo Abe’s close relations with the U.S. cannot be reduced to his rapport with President Trump. Abe worked closely with the Obama administration before the 2016 election, and Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s top aide and his successor following his 2020 resignation, was the first foreign leader to travel to the White House after Joe Biden’s inauguration. Abe was a strong supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (and its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership) and arguably the most influential proponent of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. He even played a role in the rapid replacement of the term “Asia-Pacific” with “Indo-Pacific.”
Abe’s extensive diplomatic profile and legacy as an international institution-builder may have some questioning his populist credentials. Yet domestically he fit the bill: Abe was a special advisor to the organization Nippon Kaigi (“Japan Forum”), which has sought to combat the post-war consensus on the country and has at least 200 supporters in Japan’s Diet. Among the principals promoted by Nippon Kaigi are that Imperial Japanese colonization of its neighbors before and during World War II was beneficial for their development and should be a source of national pride; that Imperial Japan’s alleged mistreatment of neighboring countries and their populations has been either overstated or invented; and that Japan should revise Article 9 of its Constitution, which permits it only self-defense forces, to counter the mounting threats of China, Russia, and North Korea.
This made Abe a much more controversial figure in China and the Koreas than with Western leaders. Relations between Tokyo and its nearest neighbors have long been strained due to the pre-war period, during which Japan annexed both the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria. It is estimated that the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937 and did not end until six days after Nagasaki, took the lives of 1.3 million Chinese. About 240,000 Koreans were conscripted into Japan’s war effort and somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Korean women are believed to have been conscripted into Japanese “comfort stations” across its empire, where they were expected to sexually service Japanese troops.
Abe was not the first Japanese leader to play down such historical disputes. Much of the Japanese political class comes from elite families who benefited and profited from wartime efforts. Abe’s grandfather was not only prime minister himself in the 1950s but overseer of economic affairs in Manchukuo, the puppet state Japan set up after conquering Manchuria. Abe campaigned on defending his country’s reputation with exceptional vigor, including denying that women had been forced to work at comfort stations and insisting that Article 9 should be discarded, as it had been forced on Japan after the war and left the country unable to cope with a changing security landscape in East Asia.
Whereas Donald Trump asserted that the U.S. had been treated unfairly by “freeloading” countries who ask too much of it, for Abe unfair treatment of his country meant forcing it into a dependent’s role and not allowing it to do more.
The former prime minister came across as good-natured in his dealings with Western leaders, but domestically Abe was known as a happy warrior who enjoyed sparring with rival politicians, attacking liberal press institutions eagerly, and working closely with Suga, his chief cabinet secretary, to grow the powers of his office. In doing so, he not only exercised more power than his predecessors, he became his country’s longest-serving prime minister, one who ended the instability of the 2006 to 2012 period, in which Japan went through six leaders.
Abe’s successes were minimal on the domestic front, as his efforts to revive the Japanese economy, stunted since the early 1990s, produced meager results. His efforts to boost the Japanese birthrate met with even less success. Despite promises to double military spending in the coming years, Japan currently spends just 1 percent of its GDP on defense and Abe’s overarching mission to revoke Article 9 has yet to come to fruition. Abe stepped down in 2020 due to health issues, and a series of early political missteps doomed his chosen successor, Suga, to only a year of leadership before he himself stepped down. Incumbent prime minister Fumio Kishida is not an ally of Abe’s, despite their being from the same party, having outmaneuvered Abe’s chosen candidate in the party leadership contest last fall.
Abe was not shot dead in July over his political viewpoints—the assassin is believed to have been disgruntled over his mother’s membership in a megachurch to which Abe has some connections—but he was shot while campaigning for candidates in Upper House elections, possibly as a precursor to jumping back into politics himself. Signs from the election, in which Abe’s party won a sweeping victory and candidates vowed to carry forth his vision of domestic and political affairs, indicate that his views will live on in Japanese politics for a long time to come.
Perhaps the closest comparison to Trumpism on the Asian continent can be found in India, where Narendra Modi has been prime minister since 2014. Unlike in Japan, where leadership historically tilted center-right even before Abe’s election, India’s constitution has since 1976 defined the country as socialist, and while the country officially remained neutral during the Cold War, it enjoyed good relations with the Soviet Union. This, along with America’s working relationship with India’s hostile neighbor Pakistan, led to tense bilateral relations over the ensuing decades, reaching their nadir in 1971 when the Nixon administration took the opposite side in the Indo-Pakistan War.
After Nixon, relations improved, but in fits and starts. The clash between capitalism and communism may have ended in decisive victory for the former, but India’s desire to protect domestic economic interests and hesitance to enter into formal alliances made it far from the most eager participant in post–Cold War, U.S.-led globalization efforts.
In 2014, Modi used popular discontent with the long-ruling Indian National Congress to lead the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People’s Party”) to control over the parliament. Since then, Modi has taken some decisive steps in the direction of the U.S., but not because he wholeheartedly embraces “liberal international norms.” In fact, the BJP is the successor to older organizations that have promoted Hindutva, a distinctly Hindu identity for the country, though his supporters insist this does not represents a break from the 1976 constitution, which defined the country as secular.
Modi has since childhood been a member of the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Though Modi has downplayed this in his campaigns and vowed to promote harmony among faiths, in summer 2019 Delhi revoked the autonomous status of the heavily Muslim Jammu and Kashmir region, a move heavily criticized abroad but which the Modi government claimed was necessary to counter violent extremism in the region. To bolster such claims, Delhi invited 27 members of the European Parliament to tour Kashmir that October, with those MEPs mostly coming from right-of-center European political parties.
Modi is an ironic internationalist in many ways. His signature economic policy “Make in India” promotes foreign investment, but not in a way that flings wide the country’s doors for foreign competition. Rather, it selectively promotes foreign investment in key sectors to help India achieve its economic objectives in a changing world, a world powered by advanced technologies in areas such as semiconductors, a sector where Modi has vowed to make India a world leader.
Modi’s embrace of the U.S., Japan, and other democratically inclined Pacific powers like Australia has thus not conflicted with his populist urges, as he realizes that India is unlikely to achieve those economic goals without targeted assistance from providers of high technology. Still, even with these priorities, India was once seen as one of the more skeptical participants in the Quad due to its historical aversion to alliances and questions over how the grouping would function on a practical level.
Then 2020 happened. Covid-19’s origins in Wuhan and China’s far-from-transparent reaction caused many countries to question Beijing’s intentions. India had another problem with China, involving their shared border. Border skirmishes are nothing new for the two countries. Their 1962 war ended in defeat for India, and a 2017 standoff when India sent troops to prevent China from extending a road into territory claimed by India ended when Beijing backed down. Then, in May 2020, a melee between China and India broke out in the Galwan Valley that resulted in 20 deaths on the Indian side and an indeterminate but likely similar number of dead for China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Since then, Modi and India’s embrace of the Quad concept has strengthened exponentially, encompassing cooperation on new and emerging tech like semiconductors, as well as pandemic response and space exploration. It continues to avoid terminology like “alliance,” explicitly anti-Chinese or anticommunist rhetoric, or anything constituting formal security commitments. This has not spared it criticism from official Chinese sources who claim that it is, indeed, an emerging alliance designed to contain China, but has made it an easier sell as a mechanism to promote stable trade and supply chains at a time when the pandemic and China’s own predatory behavior have made both uncertain.
Avoiding explicitly anti-Chinese rhetoric has also made the Quad more appealing to countries that have grown more skeptical of Chinese intentions but have historically sought to avoid conflict with Beijing—including the new government in Seoul.
To understand the recently elected government in South Korea, and what makes its tendencies populist, it is important to understand what separates it from its intellectual forebears and how these departures have come as a reaction to Korean progressivism and other trends in the country.
Largely associated with the legacy of the country’s military rule (1961–1987), conservatism in the Korean context has been anything but populist. Rather it is built around close cooperation between elites to guide the country’s economic prospects and security. It is most associated with former general Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, and to a lesser extent with Chun Doo-hwan, who seized power months after Park’s death and allowed democratic elections in 1987. Under military rule, the government, the military, and business elites worked symbiotically to power industrialization, build a military that could defend against North Korean adventurism, and promote domestic social stability based on a strong work ethic and anticommunism.
When democratic elections finally came to Korea in the late 1980s, it unleashed an emerging Korean progressive movement that was less preoccupied with the social liberalism of their Western counterparts and more with undoing the legacy of the military leaders. The authoritarian tendencies of Park Chung-hee, they believed, could be explained by his having been an officer trained in the Imperial Japanese army before the war. It was also believed that he had not fully stamped out the stain of Japanese collaboration in the country and hindered the process of inter-Korean reconciliation. Subsequent progressive Korean administrations have thus promoted reconciliation and cooperation with North Korean leaders, and Korean progressives still frequently denounce “collaborators”—business leaders, including wealthy families behind industrial giants like Samsung and Hyundai, as well as politicians who rose to prominence under Japanese rule and have promoted reconciliation with Japan, potentially including the entire conservative movement.
Past right-leaning presidents have been particularly vulnerable to this charge, including Lee Myung-bak (2008-13), an executive at Hyundai, and Park Geun-hye (2013-17), who is Park Chung-hee’s daughter. This tended to result in them both keeping Japan at a distance to avoid giving their opponents more political ammunition. Both were also charged with being far removed from the concerns of everyday people, with stagnant wages, a brutal job market, and dimming prospects (especially for young men). Like Japan, South Korea grew explosively after World War II, subsequently hit a wall economically, and now suffers from exceptionally low birthrates that mean both by 2100 will be literally half the country they are now.
Park Geun-hye was impeached in 2016 and removed from office in 2017, and both she and Lee Myung-bak were jailed for corruption in 2018 (though for different charges). This left the conservative movement in tatters, and the subsequent Moon Jae-in (2017–22) administration sought to fulfill the long-standing progressive priority of inter-Korean reconciliation, meeting with Kim Jong Un three times and helping to facilitate the summits between Kim and Donald Trump. This backfired, however, when Trump and Kim failed to come to terms on a sanctions-relief-for-denuclearization deal and both seemed to blame Moon for raising expectations for a grand deal that never happened. North Korea subsequently gave Moon the cold shoulder, reasoning that much of his country’s growth potential was blocked by U.S.-led sanctions South Korea could not undo, and that symbolic inter-Korean cooperation made little practical difference.
Moon’s administration was also plagued by a real estate scandal pointing to corruption in his party. South Korean presidents are limited to a single five-year terms, and Lee Jae-myung, the progressive candidate and former provincial governor who sought to replace Moon in early 2022, was forced to apologize during his campaign for mishandling the real estate debacle as a provincial governor. He was also prone to gaffes, such as declaring in late February that the war in Ukraine happened because Volodymyr Zelensky was a “novice” leader.
But the election was close, and these factors would likely not have mattered had the conservatives not nominated a very different kind of candidate. Yoon Suk Yeol was (as Lee had been trying to establish with his remarks on Zelensky) inexperienced in politics and government up to that point. This meant, however, that he had no direct ties to Japanese colonial rule, to the business elites, or to the corruption of his predecessors. Indeed, as prosecutor general he secured convictions for both Lee and Park. In fact, there were some who doubted his conservative bona fides during his run. What he may lack in ideological purity, he made up for in reading the pulse of the country, especially the youth.
Anti-feminism is on the rise in South Korea, not so much because progressives pushed it but because of general social trends such as high unemployment among young men, exacerbated by the fact that they, unlike their female counterparts, must serve more than two years in the military. Young adults are also more anti-China than anti-Japan, stemming partially from China economically retaliating against South Korea over its decision to accept U.S. missile defense batteries starting in 2016. Unification with North Korea is only prioritized by a generation of progressives that may have seen its last gasp with Moon’s administration. Polling consistently shows that most South Koreans don’t desire unification with North Korea, by force or peaceful means. They don’t think about North Korea much at all.
With such trends, Yoon’s freewheeling campaign became something of an asset. He denounced feminists as responsible for the country’s collapsing birthrate and said Korea should abolish its Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. He criticized his predecessor for caving to Chinese pressure on missile defense; by contrast, the last conservative president, Park Geun-hye, went out of her way to court Xi Jinping’s assistance on reining in North Korea. Yoon praised South Korea’s former military rulers, not just Park Chung-hee but also Chun Doo-hwan, who maintained much of Park Chung-hee’s policies but is far more hated for overseeing the lethal suppression of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and for embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars during his presidency.
These controversies made Yoon a target for the Korean press. A Korea Herald story published one week before the election explicitly compared him to Trump, and not as a compliment. They could not stop him from winning the presidency in March. Though he faces major obstacles—the opposition party still controls the National Assembly, and Yoon isn’t associated with a longstanding movement similar to RSS or Nippon Kaigi—his track record shows him taking on convention and winning, a streak he’ll need to maintain to strengthen ties with Japan and move his country away from dependence on China.
Many American foreign policy specialists did not anticipate, or appreciate, Trumpism’s appeal. In retrospect, much of what President Trump promoted on the international stage is now part of the bipartisan consensus: confronting China, supporting Taiwan, and keeping the Quad’s momentum going. “Indo-Pacific” was seen as a gimmicky term when unveiled in 2017, as India’s willingness to cooperate in multilateral ventures was considered questionable and the term seemed part and parcel of a newly confrontational approach to Beijing. Now the term is uncontroversial, as is the view that the United States must work with right-populists like Modi and Yoon to counter China and promote a “liberal” world order.
For supporters of America First, especially those who appreciated the turn away from wars of choice in faraway lands, this may cause concern. Trump was largely propelled to the presidency over the failed internationalism of his predecessors, whether their wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya or their cooperating with China in the hopes that it would turn less dictatorial. Trump’s criticism of previous administrations thus appealed to those on the right like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo, who wanted a foreign policy that was interventionist and assertive of U.S. interests, as well as those like Steve Bannon and Rand Paul who rejected interventionism more broadly.
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What will foreign policy look like should Trump be elected for another term? If there is a similar tug of war between conservatives who want an aggressive foreign policy versus those who want a more hands-off approach, it should be clear which tendencies fellow populists in Asia are going to encourage. Over the long term, their successes could result in fewer U.S. commitments abroad. Modi appears no more eager for a bilateral alliance than his predecessors, and both Japan and South Korea are eying increased military spending.
But what of the short term? During a May summit, Modi said that the U.S.-India partnership will remain a “force for good” regarding Indo-Pacific peace and stability, and Yoon has called for the U.S.-South Korea alliance to be “values-based,” meaning they side with the democracies in the region. Abe, for his part, had in the months leading up to his death grown increasingly outspoken about the need to defend Taiwan in the event of PLA invasion. In February, he called for the U.S. to drop its ambiguity regarding how it would respond to such an invasion and explicitly commit to Taiwan’s defense.
There is always the possibility that America First will look different in 2024 than it did in 2016. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose strong poll numbers and impressive fundraising make him Trump’s most serious threat for the Republican presidential nomination, was among those offering commiseration after Abe’s death, calling him “a heck of an ally” to the U.S. “He understood freedom. He understood the threat posed by China,” DeSantis said of Abe. Just as right-populism means different things in different countries, America First may have different meanings in our American context depending on who carries its banner forward.