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The Abe legacy and the China and North Korea threats

AP Photo/Hiro Komae
A woman prays after offering a bouquet of flowers at the memorial area set up for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo on July 14, 2022. Abe was assassinated on July 8 while speaking in Nara, western Japan.

Immediately after Japan’s newly elected prime minister, Shinzo Abe, met with President Barack Obama in February 2013, he delivered a major policy address at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In his talk, which he entitled, “Japan is Back,” Abe laid out his thinking on why he decided to seek Japan’s highest position again in 2012, after having retired from his first stint as prime minister in 2007.   

His thoughts then are worth revisiting because they carried through the eight years of his second premiership and into his last retirement, and they profoundly inform Japanese foreign policy today.

During his five years out of office, Abe said, he reflected deeply on the proper role Japan needs to play in the world. He determined that to meet its international responsibilities, Japan must be “a rules-promoter, a commons’ guardian, and an effective ally and partner to the U.S. and other democracies.” Though he didn’t note it at the time, all three of those declared Japanese foreign policy “tasks” are anathema to the Chinese Communist Party.  

He did cite the major flashpoint in Sino-Japanese relations: the status of the Senkaku Islands.  “History and international law both attest that the islands are Japan’s sovereign territory. After all, for the long period between 1895 and 1971, no challenge was made by anyone against the Japanese sovereignty,” he said. “We simply cannot tolerate any challenge now, or in the future. No nation should underestimate the firmness of our resolve. No one should ever doubt the robustness of the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

The latter point alluded to the fact that the United States security commitment to Japan, under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, has been declared by Washington to extend to the Senkakus.

Nevertheless, he made clear, “I have absolutely no intention of climbing up the escalation ladder. … For me, Japan’s relations with China stand out as among the most important. The doors are always open on my side for the Chinese leaders.”   

Unfortunately, Beijing has consistently spurned Japan’s offer of friendship and challenged its claim to the Senkakus by repeated incursions into Japanese waters and airspace. As with its naval and aviation challenges to Taiwan, China’s provocative actions often come perilously close to triggering outright conflict.

Abe mentioned one other Northeast Asian flashpoint: North Korea. “Their nuclear ambition should not be tolerated. Unless they give up on developing a nuclear arsenal, missile technologies, and release all the Japanese citizens they abducted, my government will give them no reward.”

He made clear that he regarded the North Korea missile and nuclear threat as a geopolitical concern that his administration was committed to address: “This is not only a regional matter, but a global one. Japan, on my watch, should work tirelessly with the U.S., South Korea, others and the United Nations to stop them from pursuing those ambitions.”

During the question-and-answer period, CSIS President John Hamre noted that Abe’s Oval Office meeting with Obama had extended considerably beyond the scheduled time, and he asked what they discussed. Abe turned immediately to what was on his mind: “[O]n the issue of North Korea and the launching of missiles and the conducting of nuclear tests, we agreed that we would … resolutely deal with that issue. For example, we would jointly pursue a Chapter VII Resolution in the U.N. Security Council. We also talked about how we could strengthen our … financial sanctions being applied to North Korea.”

I was called on next and followed up on his Chapter VII proposal by asking for Abe’s “expectation on China’s role” in the matter — and more broadly, his view on “whether China has played an enabling role with North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.” He responded that “China is the country with the biggest amount of influence over North Korea. And I think in implementing sanctions … we need the cooperation of China, and also in our efforts to adopt a Chapter VII sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council. Since China is a permanent member of the Security Council, we need cooperation from them as well.”

He went on to mention the missile launches and nuclear tests Pyongyang recently had conducted.  He noted that their range had increased, and the size of nuclear warheads had been reduced to the point that “they have obtained the ability to reach even mainland United States. … And this is … I think … the reason why the United States is pressuring China to exert more influence over North Korea. And I think the important thing is for the entire international community to work on China towards that end.”

Over the next few years of Abe’s term, the Security Council did adopt six more resolutions on top of the three put in place earlier. But, as in the past, China found ways to evade enforcing the sanctions for which it had ended up voting after obstructing and delaying the Council’s action.

One U.S. administration after another accepted Beijing’s representations that it firmly opposed North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and was doing all it could to support the international effort to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Henry Kissinger led the charge in defending China’s role. 

In return for China’s “cooperation” on North Korea and its purported role as a “responsible international stakeholder,” it was given a pass on its trade violations, its commercial theft and cheating, its human rights depredations, and its military threats against Japan and Taiwan.

Even after he left office for the second time in 2020, Abe kept sounding the alarm on the China threat, the need to deepen and broaden security cooperation with the U.S., and the critical role of Taiwan in the security of Japan and the region.

His death is a great loss for Japan, the United States, and the world, and a boon to the aggressive dictatorships in Beijing and Pyongyang. Given the relentless propaganda against the United States and Japan spewing from those capitals, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s open contempt for Abe, it is no wonder there was cheering among many Chinese who had been fed the Communist Party’s line for their entire lives. It evoked the celebrations seen in some Chinese cities on Sept. 11, 2001.  

The government Abe led and the people he served surely recognize the massive contribution he made to Japan and the world, and will ensure that his legacy of collective security and protection of democracy will continue.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Barack Obama China–Japan relations Japan North Korea Shinzo Abe Shinzo Abe assassination

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