Jack Butcher | Indo-Pacific Fellow
The news of the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe outside a usually quiet train station in Nara has sent shockwaves worldwide. The longest-serving and most influential post-war Japanese prime minister, Abe’s legacy on international relations was profound during his two terms from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020. He was the modern architect of the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, and transformed Japan into a vocal promoter of democracy and economic liberalisation, although his legacy will remain complex in Tokyo’s immediate region.
A Strategic Innovator
Known for his consultative approach to international diplomacy, Abe's strategic innovation and talent for bringing world leaders together despite sometimes irreconcilable worldviews earned him much respect. Abe was not simply a factional leader selected by his colleagues to unify Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but an international statesman blessed with remarkable political foresight. This was most evident in his address in New Delhi in 2007 when he spoke of the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans as "seas of freedom and prosperity". Although Abe primarily desired to preserve the economic order in East Asia, his speech formed the prelude to the regional security architecture known today as the “Indo-Pacific”.
Connected with the Indo-Pacific, Abe formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, the United States, Australia, and India and led its revival. The Quad linked the four dialogue partners in a consultative forum to promote an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” in Asia during the mid-2000s. Abe's efforts re-engaged the US in East Asia despite domestic pressure over the financial and moral costs of Washington's military campaigns in the Middle East. The Quad's purpose has evolved to maintaining the rules-based international order amid China's increased willingness to challenge the US' post-war hegemony in East Asia. This resonated with Australia, which like Japan, views continued US presence in the region as central to national security.
Abe's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" (FOIP)–unveiled in 2016–bestowed a framework under which freedom of navigation, peaceful settlements of territorial disputes, and adherence to trade rules became core tenets of aligned partners. The FOIP was linked to Abe’s domestic promise to revitalise Japan’s stagnant economy through monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and economic liberalisation. Popularised as “Abenomics”, these “three arrows” required expanded multilateral-level cooperation for Japan to liberalise domestically and access new overseas markets. The FOIP also sought to reposition Tokyo as a great power in line with Abe’s belief that Japan should become more assertive in regional affairs, which was traditionally restricted by its post-war pacifist political culture.
Abe’s “Trump Test”
Apart from North Korea, Abe’s most significant foreign policy challenge arguably came from the nation he perceived as central to Japan’s regional ambitions: The United States. Donald Trump's election in 2016 raised fears in Tokyo that Washington would reduce and potentially withdraw its military presence from Asia. Abe visited the US several times before and after Trump's inauguration and used his diplomatic talent and love of golf to woo Trump into taking a softer stance on Japan. Abe's investment in their relationship paid dividends, with Trump reaffirming the US commitment to the alliance and adopting Abe's FOIP in 2019 as an official US strategy.
Japan assumed economic leadership in the Indo-Pacific alongside and often against China when the US began withdrawing from regional trade and climate deals in 2017. When the Trans-Pacific Partnership threatened to languish, Abe actively intervened to help salvage the deal, later becoming the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Tokyo avoided the worst economic tariffs threatened by Trump and even concluded an unprecedented US-Japan trade deal pledging equal market access despite Trump's repeated accusations of Japan being a currency manipulator.
Mixed Legacy in Northeast Asia
Abe made non-proliferation a priority in Japan's immediate periphery. North Korea's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and development of nuclear weapons meant that Japan was at risk of a potential strike if a conflict arose between the US and North Korea. His firm stance against Pyongyang united key US allies and China over North Korea's denuclearisation, and reinforced a maximum pressure sanctions regime. Although Pyongyang's ability to procure funds remains heavily restricted, North Korea still shows no signs of forfeiting its nuclear arsenal and remains Japan's most pressing security threat.
Japan's bilateral relations with China and South Korea became notoriously strained during Abe's tenure. Abe's controversial views regarding historical negationism, denial of the plight of "comfort women", and visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 2013 alienated many politicians and civil leaders in countries that Japanese forces previously occupied. Although Abe's rhetoric softened as his role as a regional facilitator became prominent, his legacy will remain most contentious in Beijing. Chinese leaders interpret Abe's involvement in the formulation of the modern Indo-Pacific and the Quad as an unfair attempt to contain its re-emergence as a regional superpower.
His controversial views aside, Shinzo Abe’s legacy will be forever connected with being a reformer domestically, regionally, and globally. His championing of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" when the US and other regional partners remained primarily distracted from the military and economic shifts occurring in East Asia was an example of the closer coordination between aligned partners required to preserve regional prosperity. Most significantly, with his reputation often on the line, Abe succeeded in his ambition to reassert Japan as a respected great power in international relations.
Jack Butcher is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.