A Sharp-Elbowed Politician, an Irreplaceable International Statesman
A famous, albeit fictional, statesman once said “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good.”
As Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe Shinzo left a legacy. Fair-minded individuals would be able to find grounds for criticism in that record: Abe climbed to leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party by stoking doubts about his country’s record in World War II, provoking outrage from neighboring countries. He relished sparring with his rivals in Japan’s other political parties and in the press; his country’s press freedom ranking consequently declined under his leadership. His efforts at addressing his country’s stagnant economy and moribund birthrate saw, interpreted charitably, only modest successes.
But Abe Shinzo should be remembered for much more than that. Much as Winston Churchill should be remembered, both for his foresight regarding the rise of the Nazi threat and his record as ruthless defender of Britain’s colonial interests, proponents of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision that Abe championed should remember his record as a partisan, but also as an international institution builder in an age where both “freedom” and “openness” are under attack in the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, he revived Japan as an international player and helped set the stage for multilateral cooperation to preserve existing rules and norms, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Such efforts make him one of the most influential statesmen of this era.
Since Abe’s shocking assassination on July 8, the Pacific Forum has sought to ensure that the fullness of this legacy is remembered, and as such used our PacNet series to explain his impact from a variety of perspectives. In doing so, we reached out to many old friends whose names are familiar to the Pacific Forum’s long-time readers. In PacNet #37, Brad Glosserman, Pacific Forum’s senior advisor and my co-editor at Comparative Connections, identifies the specific attributes of Abe’s—specifically his strongly held opinions and behind-the-scenes advocacy—that made it possible for him to be this institutional builder and to restore Japan’s role on the foreign policy stage. In PacNet #36 Stephen Nagy of the International Christian University in Tokyo provides a comprehensive overview of Abe the diplomat, including his successful managing of relations with the PRC, which were actually at a low point before his lengthy stint as PM. In PacNet #39 Kei Koga of Nanyang Technological University demonstrates how under Abe, Japan countered the PRC’s growing influence in Southeast Asian countries through sustained engagement, winning their trust despite their unwillingness to match his hawkishness toward Beijing. Furthermore, in PacNet #43 Jagannath Panda of ISDP, Sweden explains how Abe’s dealings with India paved the way for the latter’s increased engagement with the outside world, including through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. In PacNet #40, I note that Abe’s tireless engagement with American presidents across changes in parties has made good relations with Tokyo that rarest of things in US politics: an area of bipartisan agreement that looks unlikely to change, regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election.
The Pacific Forum also reached beyond its regular contributors’ list to acquire new perspectives. Shihoko Goto of the Wilson Center details Abe’s prescient vision for the defense of Taiwan, something the US would gradually awaken to. Jada Frasier—an MA student in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service that we believe policy professionals will be hearing from more and more in the future—explains how despite causing tensions in the Japan-South Korea relationship, Abe also deserves credit for increasing the two East Asian democracies’ opportunities for security cooperation through his emphasis on minilateral groupings.
Now that Japan has laid the former prime minister to rest last week, those who remember the darker side of his leadership will find grounds to do so, and some of those criticisms will be warranted. Abe, however, left a legacy far beyond those unpleasantries, especially if, as was the case with Churchill, his country and the international community rise to the challenge they presently face.
Table of Contents
PacNet 35, 07/11/2022. Abe Shinzo and the Japan-South Korea relationship: Near- and long-term legacies by Jada Fraser
PacNet 36, 07/14/2022. Post-Abe Indo-Pacific regional dynamics: A legacy beyond the man by Stephen Nagy
PacNet 37, 07/15/2022. Abe’s death creates a void in Japan by Brad Glosserman
PacNet 39, 07/22/2022. Abe Shinzo’s legacy in Southeast Asia by Kei Koga
PacNet 40, 07/25/2022. Abe Shinzo: How to handle an unpredictable America by Rob York
PacNet 43, 08/05/2022. Post-Abe India-Japan ties: Does Kishida have what it takes? by Jagannath Panda
PacNet 45, 08/10/2022. The prescience of Abe’s vision for Taiwan by Shihoko Goto
Photo: State Funeral of Shinzo Abe by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan