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Opinion Abe’s legacy is a world better prepared to confront China

Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of Japan Self-Defense Forces at Asaka Base north of Tokyo on Oct. 27, 2013. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)
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Friday was a day of shock, sadness and anger in Japan and around the world following the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe. But when the grieving has subsided and the history books are written, Abe will be remembered above all for his early and crucial contribution to the world’s long-term response to the challenges posed by China’s rise.

The condolences pouring in from world leaders reflect the international respect Abe earned during his long political and diplomatic career, which included two stints as prime minister, a post he held longer than anyone in Japan’s history. Many of these testimonials recognized Abe’s commitment to bolstering the international order that had provided for regional peace, prosperity and security in East Asia since the end of World War II. Abe was one of the earliest international leaders to recognize Beijing’s determination to use its growing power and influence to undermine that system — and also to do something about it.

Abe reoriented Japan’s foreign policy to focus on long-term competition with China when U.S. and other world leaders were still clinging to an engagement-based approach with Beijing. His economic program, known as “Abenomics” (which ultimately had mixed results), was part of his mission to prove that Japan could help lead the international response to China’s ascendance.

Tomohiko Taniguchi, Abe’s long-serving foreign policy adviser and speechwriter, told me in an interview that Abe understood that Tokyo had to do three things if it wanted to withstand growing Chinese power over the long term: Japan would have to enhance its economy, reinvest in its alliance with the United States, and expand its diplomatic ties by reaching out to Australia and India.

John R. Bolton: The death of Shinzo Abe is a loss to the U.S. and its allies

Americans might remember Abe for his rare ability to connect with President Donald Trump. Abe meticulously cultivated his relationship with Trump, making sure he was the first foreign leader to visit Trump Tower after the November 2016 election and the first to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

In 2017, photos emerged showing Trump and Abe examining classified North Korean missile launch intelligence under the glow of phone flashlights as Trump’s Florida club guests looked on. It was a moment that captured Abe’s dilemma when dealing with the chaos of U.S. politics. Nevertheless, Trump came to see Abe as a senior statesman and a friend, as did President Barack Obama before him. This was a testament to Abe’s personal diplomatic skill.

“He knew two things: that the United States’ continued presence is vital for the region and beyond, and that for the United States to stay engaged in the region, Japan is vital,” Taniguchi told me. “His tactful relationship-building [efforts] both with Obama and Trump were all based on that realist consideration.”

Although Abe was a conservative, nationalist, celebrity politician, he was not, as some are saying today, “Trump before Trump,” at least concerning foreign policy. Abe believed in alliances, multilateralism, human rights and the strengthening of the rules-based international order. Trump came to office vowing to tear down the very foreign policy establishment that Abe fought to preserve.

“He pursued a new brand of identity politics, celebrating economic openness and the country’s maritime identity, which should work as a foundation for the generations to come,” Taniguchi told me.

Large chunks of the conceptual framework for today’s U.S. strategy in East Asia can be traced back to Abe’s initiatives and speeches, such as the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Abe’s work to bring together the United States, Japan, Australia and India was instrumental in the formation of the now-formal diplomatic grouping called “the Quad.” Focusing on shared values rather than explicitly targeting China was a hallmark of Abe’s approach.

“The sheer idea of the rule of law, which is one great pillar for human rights, has taken deeper root,” Abe said during a 2014 speech in Singapore. “Freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, which undergirds these two, form the Asia-Pacific’s rich basso continuo that supports the melody played in a bright and cheery key. I find myself newly gripped by that sound day after day.”

Among Abe’s other related accomplishments, he reformed Japan’s national security bureaucracy, expanded the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and saved the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement when the United States pulled out, by rebranding it as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). True to his pragmatic nature, he simultaneously worked to tamp down tensions in the Japan-China bilateral relationship.

Not all of Abe’s plans succeeded. Following in the footsteps of his father, a former Japanese foreign minister, Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin dozens of times over the years in a failed attempt to resolve their countries’ historical disputes. Abe’s hardline approach toward North Korea put him out of step with both Trump’s and Obama’s policies. His reluctance to cede ground on Japan’s wartime atrocities forfeited potential for progress in Japan’s troubled relationship with South Korea.

One of Abe’s final diplomatic acts, earlier this year, was to sound an alarm about China’s increasingly dangerous menacing of Taiwan. He publicly called for the United States to abandon its policy of “strategic ambiguity” and publicly declare its intention to come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks.

“The human tragedy that has befallen Ukraine has taught us a bitter lesson,” he wrote. “There must no longer be any room for doubt in our resolve concerning Taiwan, and in our determination to defend freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”

To the extent that the West has prepared to defend these values as China seeks to erode them, Abe deserves significant credit. That is a legacy even his heinous murder can never overshadow.