Remembering a Global Statesman: The Legacy of Shinzo Abe
Rituja Ghosh- Academic Associate, Kautilya
Shinzo Abe casts a long shadow in Japanese politics and gained renown as a global statesman. His death comes as a loss not just for Japan but for the global community. His contribution in terms of ideation in global politics, of setting the course for a ‘rules-based order’ as reiterated in many of his public speeches showcases his commitment to global cooperation and for elevating Japan to the world stage. Shinzo Abe was perhaps one of the most impactful Presidents of Japan with his brand of ‘Abenomics’ and ‘soft nationalism’.
Abe was a nationalist with a ‘global vision’ who ensured a proactive role for Japan in global affairs. Under his aegis, Japan received a renewed strategic vision and elevated stature in global affairs. Shinzo Abe’s most enduring foreign policy contribution is perhaps the strategic lexicon of a ‘free and open Indo Pacific. Abe did not merely display confidence in the liberal rules-based order but over time emerged as a strong advocate of the same through his many international engagements. Abe’s strategic ideation was showcased in his address to the Indian Parliament wherein he spoke of the ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’, an idea which matured into a strategic vision wherein Abe set the agenda for the ‘Indo Pacific’ through his pronouncement that “Peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean are inseparable from peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean”. Abe can be credited for setting the tone for a shift from the lexicon of ‘Asia Pacific’ to that of Indo Pacific.
Abe recognized that with China’s s economic and strategic ambitions as encapsulated in the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ spanning across the Eurasian continent and its growing military footprint in the South China Sea there was an exigency for a ‘security strategy’ encompassing both the Pacific Ocean including the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean which includes the East Coast of Africa. Shinzo Abe’s recasting of Japan as a maritime power was focused on preserving economic ties within the maritime space while addressing the security concerns of ‘middle power’s in the face of an increasingly expansionist China.
The conceptualization of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was outlined by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his keynote address at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TI-CAD) in Nairobi, Kenya. Abe visualized in his speech the Free and Open Indo- Pacific as an ‘international public good’.
Shinzo Abe integrated Japan’s domestic security policy with Japan’s foreign policy imperatives. Abe realized the need for economic co-operation with China but also showed remarkable vision in matching China’s diplomacy in Asia and prepared Japan to ‘counterbalance’ against China to safeguard Japanese maritime and territorial interests.
The Tsunami Core Group (TCG) of 2004 which was established after the 2004 Tsunami was the first forum where collective dialogue between Japan, the US, India, and Australia took place. All these nations share the distinction of being significant maritime powers and upholding faith in democratic values and ‘freedom of navigation. Shinzo Abe employed ‘multilateralism’ to crystalize the concept of ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ in 2007 during the ASEAN Regional Forum Summit in Manila where the four countries – the United States, Australia, Japan, and India in their parleys constituted the first meeting of what is now the QUAD. It was Abe’s enunciation of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” along the outer rim of Eurasia that provided an enduring underpinning to the Quad. He outlined the concept of a ‘broader Asia’ with India and Japan playing a pivotal role in the continent undermining China’s strategic posturing as the regional hegemon.
With the constitution of the National Security Council, Abe provided a re-organization of Japan’s foreign and security policy structure. The National Security Council was employed to draft the legislation of ‘The National Security Strategy. ‘The National Security Strategy that was adopted in 2013 repositioned Japan from being a ‘pacifist’ passive observer to a more ‘proactive’ and ‘dynamic’ role in ensuring stability in the global order. Abe outlined ‘proactive contributions to peace’ to emphasize the ‘democratic ideals and commitment to the ‘liberal world order as the guiding principle of Japan’s restructuring of foreign policy.
Abe also laid down the foundation for expanding the scope of Japan’s security and defense policy. His introduction of the ‘re-interpretation’ of Article 9, enabled the Self Defense Forces (SDFs) to exercise Japan’s right to collective self-defense. The expansion of conditions under which the SDF could use force was a historic move and contributed to ‘collective defense’ ending the Japanese Military’s 60-year ban on fighting abroad.
Abe’s foreign policy initiatives were not without contradictions. Critics have opined that while Japan made active efforts towards ‘autonomy’, its dependence on the US in security, defense, and political affairs continued. Abe’s nationalism created a ‘trust deficit’ among Japan’s neighbors in East Asia.
Shinzo Abe will be remembered for his penchant for adding a ‘personal touch to his diplomatic engagements with world leaders from ‘Sushi Diplomacy with President Obama to ‘Golf Diplomacy with President Trump. Abe’s diplomatic outreach to ASEAN, Europe, and ‘like-minded’ democracies along with his strategic vision in terms of the QUAD and Indo – Pacific have left an enduring impact on Japan’s foreign policy architecture.