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The highlight of Abe’s complex legacy is forging Asia’s security

Associated Press/Shizuo Kambayashi
As Japanese prime minister in this Oct. 27, 2013, file photo, Shinzo Abe, right, reviewed members of Japan Self-Defense Forces during the Self-Defense Forces Day at Asaka Base, north of Tokyo. Abe was assassinated during a speech on July 8, 2022, in western Japan.

Shocking people the world over, in the early hours of the day on Friday, news broke out that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been shot while campaigning in the northern town of Nara in Japan. Hours later, it was confirmed that the former prime minister died of blood loss

This brought sorrow and sadness to Japan, to the many people around the globe whom he had inspired and to many friends. Among those friends are leaders such as President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the heads of state of the Quad group of nations. Over the years, the leaders of the four nations had gotten together on various occasions to discuss security and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.  

The Indian prime minister even penned a eulogy in the form of a farewell letter and shared it on social media. It credited the late prime minister with the instrumental role he played in foreign affairs, from coining the term “Indo-Pacific” to having a greater vision for the region. 

For example, the Quad grouping came together at the crucial need of the hour in 2004, when the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck havoc around the Indo-Pacific. It was shelved soon after and wasn’t revamped until Abe initiated the revival in 2017. However, this time around it was a brainchild of Abe, designed to address a plethora of issues in the region.   

As Ken Moriyasu of Nikkei Asia highlighted, Abe identified three strategic concerns or threats — North Korea, China and Russia — as shaping Japanese foreign policy. China was a major concern for all four nations of the Quad, which explains why some Chinese netizens were celebrating Abe’s assassination. Abe was viewed by some as one of the most hawkish Japanese prime ministers since the World Wars.

Not to mention Abe’s affiliation with conservative and revisionist groups such as Nippon Kaigi. The association did not earn him many friends in China or South Korea. The organization espoused views that were antithetical to modern Japan’s foreign policy ambitions. Among the most controversial, Nippon Kaigi was known for its denial of imperial Japan’s kidnapping and use of Korean women as “comfort women” i.e. sex slaves during Japan’s rule over the peninsula. It proved to be a thorn in Japan’s rapprochement with South Korea and maintaining good relations with China. It even got Abe the name “Trump before Trump” indicating his populist appeal and far-right views. However, unlike Trump, he was not a polarizing figure in the world. While in Korea and China he was not the most revered of Japanese leaders, he certainly had a following even amongst nations that were colonized by the imperial Japanese empire.

Experts are noting Abe’s goal to revise Japan’s pacifist approach to international affairs, which was largely brought about due to its surrender to the U.S. in World War II and the constitutional provisions that were part of the surrender. However, Abe was revered in former colonies of Japan from the Philippines to the Mekong region. Japan’s foreign policy under Abe involved development aid, increased trade and assistance to developing countries in South and Southeast Asia. None of these were marks of an imperial empire. As a matter of fact, his administration even went on to support decolonizing efforts in India by financially supporting several projects in India’s North and Northeast states.   

Finally, what could be his ultimate legacy was transforming the Asia-Pacific into the Indo-Pacific. Beyond the term “Indo-Pacific” coming into parlance among international relations scholars and the general populace, the world’s perception of Asia changed and evolved thanks to his vision for the region.  

Several initiatives that have since come to fruition such as the Supply Chain Resilience InitiativeBlue Dot Network and even Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity would not have found resonance and audience in the region if not for Abe’s groundwork in establishing goodwill in the countries in the region.  

These could potentially be solutions to preserving long-term security in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Successive U.S. governments since Obama have prioritized the Asia Pacific for both security and economic reasons. President Obama introduced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Biden has followed suit with his own version of an “Asia pivot.” 

Time will tell if the leaders of the Western world and Asia walk in the footsteps of Abe. That will in turn determine the success of the pivot to Asia.

Akhil Ramesh is a fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has worked with governments, risk consulting firms and think tanks in the United States and India. Follow him on Twitter: Akhil_oldsoul. 

Tags Japan–United States relations Joe Biden Quad countries Shinzo Abe Shinzo Abe assassination

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