The response to the death of Shinzo Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan, pays tribute to the impact he made not just in his country and its region but across the world. Reading the many obituaries and eulogies, it is striking how the life of this one man meant such different things to different people. To appreciate his legacy, including the role he played in bringing the United Kingdom (UK) and Japan into a ‘quasi alliance[↗]’ relationship, it pays to reflect on how he balanced strategic elements of sovereignty and dependence in the context of domestic, regional and global pressures.
In the domestic context, Mr Abe’s political stance meant that he was often characterised not just as a ‘conservative’, but as an ‘ultra-nationalist[↗]’, or worse. This is partly because of his family heritage; as a third generation politician descended from one of the founders of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party, Nobusuke Kishi, who also served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960. Mr Kishi went from suspected war criminal (his signature is among those on Japan’s 1942 declaration of war on the United States (US)) under the early occupation years to being the Americans’ favoured candidate to beat the socialists at the ballot box. Despite a strong personal sense of mission to restore Japan’s independence after the war, Mr Kishi resigned in the face of violent opposition[↗] to his passage of a revised US-Japan security treaty in 1960.
His grandson Shinzo Abe inherited the mission to revise the constitution of Japan that he saw as ‘US-imposed’, while at the same time preserving and adapting the alliance that ensures Japan’s security. It is not just Japan’s history, but its geostrategic situation that obliges Japanese leaders then and now to innovate some form of reconciliation between sovereignty and dependence.
Only in this context of post-war Japan’s political polarisation and emerging regional and global role could a figure like Mr Abe find himself condemned as a conservative throwback, as vehemently as he was celebrated as a visionary reformer (a particularly well-regarded biography about him was titled ‘The Iconoclast[↗]’. Although he failed[↗] in his goal of formal constitutional revision, Mr Abe did have key elements restricting the use of armed force legally re-interpreted to give Japan the option of collective as well as individual self-defence, i.e. to fight alongside allies when the security of Japan is threatened. This achievement sits alongside the setting up of a National Security Council and reforms in command and control[↗], intelligence[↗] and the export of arms[↗] that have contributed to making Japan the UK’s most important security partner in Asia[↗].
These security policy reforms reinforced the labelling of Mr Abe as ‘hawkish[↗]’ and ‘militarist[↗]’, despite the fact much of his legacy is based on the innovation and leadership he showed in developing multilateral diplomatic and trade institutions. This form of internationalism was one of the ways he sought to adapt Japan’s balance between sovereignty and dependecy to address the implications of a more powerful and aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Years before anyone was talking about the ‘Quad’, Abe was promoting the ‘Democratic Diamond[↗]’ in his first term as Prime Minister, of which the four corners were the same; the US, Japan, India and Australia. He kept the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) alive after President Obama failed to bring the US on board and President Trump rejected it outright alongside other multilateral trade arrangements. The fact that the UK is now on track[↗] to become the first non-Asian member of CPTPP is also due in large part to the ‘pivotal[↗]’ role played by Japan in managing new applications to the trade pact under Mr Abe’s leadership.
The relationship with Britain is an example of the importance Mr Abe placed on strong bilateral relationships with countries capable of supporting Japan’s position in Asia, as he showed by the tactful and far-sighted[↗] approach to maintaining and strengthening relations with the UK as it developed the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ after Brexit. He wrote[↗] in late 2020:
A leading global power, Great Britain has a major role to play in the Indo-Pacific. As the world’s sixth- largest economy, increased trade between the UK and Indo-Pacific nations will contribute to overall economic growth. Britain can also work with countries throughout the region on upholding democratic values and supporting the multinational institutions that have developed in recent years. On the security front, the British military, and the Royal Navy in particular, will be a welcome presence in the seas of the Indo-Pacific.
This activation of strategic bilateral partnerships, which Mr Abe also achieved with India[↗] and Australia[↗], was another part of his strategy, knitting together a global network – US-aligned, but not US dependent – giving Japan greater agency in achieving its strategic priorities.
In terms of bilateral relations, perhaps Mr Abe’s most inspiring example to a global audience was his management of Japan’s relationship with the PRC. He demonstrated how a deep economic partnership with Beijing can be preserved without sacrificing an inch on points of principle and sovereignty, even under pressure of economic and military coercion[↗] and rhetorical bullying. Despite all the charges of hawkishness, he achieved this entirely peacefully.
After leaving office as his country’s longest serving Prime Minister, Mr Abe continued to shape the strategic discourse. Whether or not the ideas he floated (Japan adopting the type of nuclear sharing[↗] arrangements that gives allies like Germany access to nuclear weapons, or making explicit the links[↗] between the security of Taiwan and Japan) gained traction, he expanded the scope of Japan’s debate on national security.
There is a bitter irony in the way his life was ended by an act of violence that took advantage of the openness of Japan’s political conventions and assumptions of safety and civility in Japanese society. Some have speculated[↗] that the assassination may come to be seen as a loss of innocence in a country that has enjoyed decades with enviably low levels of visible social or political violence.
Tributes from heads of state, former colleagues and commentators around the world characterising his role have gravitated to a common choice of words: leader, statesman, visionary. Mr Abe seems to have transcended the contradictions that might be read from the simplistic labelling of his political approach. He leaves Japan a state more able not only to secure its own interests, but also to show the way in dealing with security challenges from a leadership position that it has not held for many decades. It is in considerable part thanks to Shinzo Abe that Japan is exactly the kind of partner the UK needs, and is fortunate to have, in the world today.
Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.
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