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The mixed legacy of Shinzo Abe

While the country’s longest serving prime minister had a hawkish bent, he saw the benefit of improving relations with China.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Not only was Shinzo Abe Japan’s longest serving prime minister, he was also one of Japan’s most consequential political leaders. When Japanese had lost their confidence and were still reeling from the effects of the March 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, Abe exercised strong leadership to try to energize the Japanese economy and revive Japan’s presence on the global stage.

His so-called “Abenomics” involving a loose monetary policy, an increase in public spending, and some structural reform efforts helped to lift stock prices, increase corporate profits, and counter deflationary tendencies in the economy. Abe, however, was less successful in raising wages; and more Japanese had to live under precarious economic circumstances. Under Abe’s watch, more Japanese women participated in the workforce, but Japan continued to lag internationally in terms of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Abe pursued what he called a “pro-active peace diplomacy” and launched a dazzling array of diplomatic initiatives. He may be most remembered for his vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific that aimed to protect the freedom of navigation, enhance connectivity across Asia, and strengthen a rules-based order. He was also instrumental in promoting security cooperation among Japan, the United States, Australia, and India through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad.

Abe tightened the U.S.-Japan alliance by relaxing constitutional constraints on defense policy and pushing for major legislative changes regarding Japan’s security role. He was especially skillful in his interactions with President Donald Trump to prevent Trump’s skepticism of U.S. alliance commitments from damaging relations with Japan. When the United States under Trump departed from the Trans-Pacific Partnership mega-free trade deal, which Washington had heretofore championed, Abe took the lead to work with the remaining countries to forge the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP.

Although Abe was a defense hawk and alarmed about China’s military buildup and assertiveness, he contributed to stabilizing relations with China during his two periods as prime minister. After China-Japan relations had deteriorated to their lowest point since the 1972 normalization of bilateral relations because of tensions over the Senkaku Islands dispute, Abe eventually found a way to improve relations with Beijing by promoting cooperation in third-country infrastructure projects. Abe’s reputation as a conservative nationalist gave him the domestic political space to reach out to China. As a result, before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping was slated to make a historic state visit to Japan. The pandemic derailed that plan, and China-Japan relations have deteriorated again.

Abe was also a controversial politician because of his views about history and constitutional revision. He held a “revisionist” view of World War II and was reluctant to clearly acknowledge that Japan had launched a war of aggression. He insisted that Japan should not have to keep apologizing about its past behavior and sought to issue a statement during the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II that would supersede the statement of apology made by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in August 1995. Early in his political career, Abe even advocated retracting the 1993 Kono statement of apology for the pain and suffering that so-called comfort women had to endure. But in the end, he was pragmatic enough to temper these views.

In August 2015, Prime Minister Abe issued a statement that did just enough to acknowledge Japan’s past transgressions to avoid exacerbating tensions with neighboring countries. And in December 2015, his government negotiated a deal with South Korea to address the comfort women issue, under which Japan accepted its responsibility and provided public funds to support comfort women survivors.

Abe advocated a thorough revision of the postwar constitution. After he stepped down as prime minister the first time around in 2007, he pressed the Liberal Democratic Party to draft a revision proposal that would not only change Article 9 to establish a National Defense Military, but also include amendments that critics charged could curtail individual rights. But in the face of domestic resistance, Abe scaled back his ambitious revision goals and began to talk about a more modest constitutional amendment that would simply make explicit the legitimacy of the current Self-Defense Force.

After his retirement as prime minister in fall 2020 and the recovery of his health, Abe became a more outspoken advocate of his hawkish views. He argued for a doubling of Japanese defense spending and the acquisition of a land-based long-range counter-attack missile capability. He even suggested the possibility of a “nuclear-sharing” agreement with the United States that could open the door for the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons on Japanese territory. Such a change would mean a revision of Japan’s long-standing Three Non-Nuclear Principles. He was also forward-leaning about supporting Taiwan and recommended that the United States move from strategic ambiguity to clarity about defending Taiwan if attacked.

Although Japan can and should do more to defend itself, some of Abe’s recent ideas about security and foreign policy have been imprudent. Rather than adopting a counter-offensive retaliatory doctrine, Japan can better contribute to deterrence by enhancing the resilience, survivability, and mobility of U.S. and Japanese defense forces in Japan and by having a more effective ability to interdict and repel aggression. Because of Japan’s proximity to Taiwan and the strategic importance of its southwest island chain, Japan can help persuade China not to attack Taiwan by sticking to its strictly defensive defense doctrine, by strengthening its defense capabilities, and by adhering to its one-China policy.

Therefore, the best way to honor Abe’s legacy as prime minister is for Japan to renew efforts to stabilize relations with China while continuing to strengthen its ties with the United States and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

HANGZHOU, CHINA - SEPT. 4. 2016 - Chinese president Xi Jinping (R) welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) in G20 summit in Hangzhou. Editorial credit: plavi011 /
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