The legacy of Japan’s Abe: A bridge to the US, a great wall against China
Netflix is delving deep into the bold, brash, creative career of actor-director Quentin Tarantino. One of the many unique things about Tarantino’s work is his ability to rehabilitate the careers of past Hollywood greats — whether it be John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” Robert Forster and Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown,” or Bruce Dern in “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” In each case, knowing his film history, Tarantino gives to great, often unsung talents their belated due.
This is precisely what we should do for outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was forced to step down after almost eight years at the helm of his country due to the worsening of a debilitating illness. Abe is easy to overlook: aristocratic (his father was foreign minister; his grandfather, prime minister), aloof, uncharismatic. He is far from seeming the kind of heroic “great man” over whom historians and the general public often fawn.
But more than any other leader of a great power in our new era, Abe has taken advantage of our loose bipolar system — where, beneath the Sino-American superpowers, great powers such as Japan, India, Russia, the Anglosphere countries, the European Union and Germany have great strategic room to maneuver on their own — in order to take charge of history.
Whereas Germany has used this newfound freedom to steer a neutralist course away from America, Abe’s Japan has done precisely the opposite, effectively shoring up anti-Chinese forces in the Indo-Pacific, both geo-economically and geo-politically, in the face of initial U.S. indifference and Beijing’s outright hostility. Cobbling together a broad Asian-Anglosphere alliance (of which Japan has long been an honorary member), Abe’s monument is the powerful coalescing of strategic forces to meet the coming Chinese geopolitical challenge.
Abe’s record, as is true of every historical figure, certainly contains blemishes. He signally failed to secure his paramount dream of doing away with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution — which bars Japan from building an offensively capable military, or from making war on other countries — in order to transform his nation into a more ordinary great power following its total defeat in World War II.
Yet, for all this, Abe is surely a figure of historical consequence.
First, he brought vitally necessary political stability to Japan. Before his second, record-breaking term as prime minister, which began in December 2012, premiers in the country came and went through a revolving door, with five serving in just five years. By staying in place for almost eight years — making him the longest-serving premier in Japanese history — Abe gave Japan the stability it so desperately required.
But it was the prime minister’s foreign policy triumphs that are of the greatest historical importance. Abe’s central challenge has been to navigate his country through the treacherous shoals of our new era, characterized as it is by the emerging Sino-American cold war. Instinctively realizing the nature of the world’s new “loose bipolar” system, Abe took advantage of this new room-for-maneuver to strategically bring the U.S. on board, even as he organized Asian regional-balancing against an increasingly powerful China.
The prime minister became known to some as “the Trump whisperer,” so adroit was he at handling the mercurial American president. When Donald Trump ruinously abrogated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe cleverly filled the diplomatic breach. The TPP, a highly ambitious free-trade compact designed to more closely knit the Pacific Rim together around a non-Chinese basis, was as much a geo-economic move to counter Beijing’s advancing power in Asia as it was an economic measure.
It was for this strategic rationale that Abe salvaged the accord. In 2017, working deftly behind the scenes, he took the lead in reconfiguring the agreement as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), with all 12 other initial TPP signatories remaining on board. Almost on its own, Japan used the CPTPP to successfully balance against China’s increasingly expansionist designs.
Matching his geo-economic successes, history also will credit Abe with organizing organic, regional geo-strategic balancing against Beijing. During his earlier, briefer stint in power of 2006-2007, he developed the Quadrilateral Initiative, or ‘The Quad,’ a nascent geo-strategic grouping of Anglosphere democracies (Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.) designed to deter Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific.
Like many first-rate ideas, The Quad amounted to little at the time. But history — in the guise of ever-increasing Chinese bellicosity in the South China and East China Seas, Hong Kong, the high Himalayas and Xinjiang Province — has vindicated Abe’s far-sighted vision. Fostering close personal ties with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Abe has left behind a rejuvenated Quad, the institutional beginnings of an organic regional pushback against Beijing’s adventurism.
Like all of history’s success stories, Abe has not ignored the inconvenient facts in front of him. While Japan on its own remains a great power, economically it has been overtaken by its traditional rival China, even as its declining population is ten times smaller than Beijing’s.
Rather than ignoring reality, the prime minister deftly played the only diplomatic cards available to him, ensuring through both geo-economic and geopolitical-strategic alliances — the CPTPP and the Quad — that these basic political dangers to Japan and its Asian alliance could be overcome. This is Abe’s great strategic achievement — and, like a memorable Tarentino character, history will remember Abe fondly for it.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy.