Shinzo Abe’s demise has left Japan completely shaken, as it has lost a leader of reckoning. Though he was out of power, as a leader of a strong faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a repository of knowledge as the longest-serving Prime Minister of Japan, he continued to impact decision-making through his wise counsel.
Shinzo Abe has an illustrious family history. He comes from a family which has given Japan a Prime Minister, Nobusuke Kishi, his maternal grandfather and chief cabinet secretary, MITI, and foreign minister Shintaro Abe, who was his father. Shinzo Abe aided his father as his political secretary and in that capacity he was a part of many high-level delegations.
Today, while we mourn his death, world leaders’ eulogies stand witness to how he had impressed them. He has been successful in transforming Japan’s foreign policy from being Japan-centric to a broader multilateral engagement, thus, defining a role for Japan beyond bilateralism.
What Shinzo Abe envisaged for Japan is scripted in "Utsukushii Kunie" (Towards a Beautiful Country). When he returned as the Prime Minister in 2012, he laid out his agenda prudently. Realising that revitalising the economy was critical, and also the need to secure his country as the environment around Japan was marred by China’s aggressive posture and North Korea’s belligerence, he embarked on creating policies which would straddle both requirements. As a result, he formulated what came to be known as "Abenomics", through which he planned an economic recovery. As part of the growth strategy embedded in "Abenomics", he forayed economic engagement with the world.
Recognising that the age-old policy of "seri-bunri", separating business from politics, had got dated, he crafted the doctrine of "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" as an anchor for Japanese foreign policy. He addressed democratic nations across the two oceans to converge and protect the sea lanes for the free flow of trade and services, encourage multilateral engagements and ensure the rule of law. In so doing, he created a leeway for Japan to expand its engagement in multilateralism.
Japan was not new to multilateralism as it was a member of a number of forums, such as the United Nations, the G-5, G-20 and East Asia Forum, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation. Shinzo Abe’s tenure saw brisk activity on Japan’s part in improving its image in its international outings. He worked relentlessly to change the outlook of both members of the Didue et (the Japanese Parliament) and the public at large. He was instrumental in crafting the National Security Council, reinterpreting the pacifist Article 9, and expanding its scope of the right to collective self-defence. This enabled the Self-Defence Forces of Japan to participate more actively in UN peacekeeping forces. While this was a remarkable overture from Japan at the UN, in other forums, too, Shinzo Abe, in his capacity as Japan’s leader, drove the implications of the fluidity of the regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific and built the narrative of the Indo-Pacific. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific gained currency and made leeway into the foreign policy of the United States, and by the time he stepped down, a sizeable number of nations had incorporated this into their engagements.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, popularly known as the "Quad", was also formulated by Shinzo Abe, in which he aspired to bring four strong maritime democracies — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — to help secure the Indo-Pacific. The spontaneous coming together of these nations during the tsunami that rocked Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, and successfully catering to its needs, aided Abe in peddling for convergence of the major democracies, leading to the formation of the "Quad" in 2007. Unfortunately, however, it remained a stillbirth as Australia and India withdrew because of domestic compulsions. Pursuing his vision with conviction, however, Abe, in his second tenure, successfully navigated China’s protests and Asean’s anxiety to push for the Quad with a nominal security agenda and larger development agenda. The Quad has been under the scanner due to its informal structure, China’s constant badgering and the question of deliverables. However, the summit meeting in May 2022 clearly put it on a firmer track. It is undeniable that Shinzo Abe was instrumental in shaping this through his charismatic leadership.
Economic multilateralism rooted in free and open trade and services witnessed Abe’s tenacity, perseverance and determination for a cause. The CPTPP, with most of its members from the Pacific region, aspires to be a gold standard agreement and incorporated new areas of economic engagement like intellectual property rights, labour and environment. When the US withdrew presumably due to domestic compulsions, it was speculated that lack of a heavyweight would lead to its death. However, Abe’s astute diplomacy enabled the establishment of CPTPP. The RCEP’s formulation was mainly to do away with the noodle bowl syndrome created from multiple free trade agreements. In the formation of the RCEP, Japan faced substantial challenges from China during the signing of the agreement. Abe, at his diplomatic best, used his bilateral links with Asean nations and other nations in Asia to convince them to favour instituting rules and regulations for a liberal order. Thus, he prevented China from imposing its total dominance over RCEP.
If Yoshida is remembered for setting the agenda of seri-bunri; Nakasone for seeking to internationalise Japan; Shinzo Abe will be remembered for transforming Japan’s foreign policy into a robust multilateralism.