Abe’s Legacy Will Outlive Him

Washington mourns the man who made Japan a real security ally in the Indo-Pacific.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam's Kilo Pier on December 27, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam's Kilo Pier on December 27, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam's Kilo Pier in Honolulu on Dec. 27, 2016. Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot and killed on Friday while campaigning for his party in the Japanese city of Nara. Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who tacked away from the country’s postwar pacifism, leaves an enduring impact on Tokyo’s security posture, especially in the Indo-Pacific, as Japan and its allies rally to confront an increasingly assertive China.

Over the course of four terms in office—his second stint in power lasting almost eight years in a rough-and-tumble political scene where some prime ministers are lucky to survive a year—Abe helped coax a reticent Japanese public toward a tougher position on China’s rise and more bullish defense spending, supercharging Japan’s military and laying the rhetorical groundwork for the revamping of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad. 

“He really supercharged Japanese foreign policy and Japan’s role on the global stage,” said Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the Rand Corp. specializing in East Asian security issues. “He was the one who stepped forward with things like the Quad and the free and open Indo-Pacific. He helped provide structural, conceptual ideas to things that needed to be provided at a time when it seemed like it was crumbling.” 

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot and killed on Friday while campaigning for his party in the Japanese city of Nara. Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who tacked away from the country’s postwar pacifism, leaves an enduring impact on Tokyo’s security posture, especially in the Indo-Pacific, as Japan and its allies rally to confront an increasingly assertive China.

Over the course of four terms in office—his second stint in power lasting almost eight years in a rough-and-tumble political scene where some prime ministers are lucky to survive a year—Abe helped coax a reticent Japanese public toward a tougher position on China’s rise and more bullish defense spending, supercharging Japan’s military and laying the rhetorical groundwork for the revamping of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad. 

“He really supercharged Japanese foreign policy and Japan’s role on the global stage,” said Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the Rand Corp. specializing in East Asian security issues. “He was the one who stepped forward with things like the Quad and the free and open Indo-Pacific. He helped provide structural, conceptual ideas to things that needed to be provided at a time when it seemed like it was crumbling.” 

Japan, buried by a “lost decade” in the 1990s, had shied away from big-picture strategic thinking before Abe turned up. But as Abe tried to kick Japan’s once-powerful economy back into warp speed with a cocktail of loose monetary policy and fiscal stimulus that earned the moniker “Abenomics,” Tokyo’s strategic forecast began to change. 

Abe was central to expanding thinking on security in the Pacific to include India in a bid to lure nonaligned New Delhi into the conversation without overtly aggravating China. In 2007, during his first, brief term in office, Abe gave a speech on his first visit to India outlining his vision of the “confluence of the two seas” between the Indian and Pacific oceans, which would come to lay the groundwork for the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept later adopted by the United States. He is also widely regarded as an architect of the Quad, which began as an informal grouping in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and was later retooled as a regional security forum. 

“He was a champion of the Alliance between our nations and the friendship between our people,” U.S. President Joe Biden, who worked with Abe during his time as vice president during the Obama administration, said in a statement on Friday. “The longest serving Japanese Prime Minister, his vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific will endure.”

Abe evolved from being a firm Japanese nationalist, courting criticism for visiting a shrine to World War II Japanese troops, including war criminals, to an unabashed internationalist. Former U.S. officials and experts believe that Abe’s influence reverberated across the Pacific Ocean. Abe had an undeniable impact on the way that the region was talked about in the corridors of power in the United States. In 2017, Japanese officials touted Abe’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept around Washington to try to peel away nonaligned India. The phrase is now a mainstay in Biden’s own talking points. And the U.S. Defense Department switched the name of its top military command in the region from U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in 2018, a testament to Abe’s influence. 

“I think where Japan is internationally, you could draw a straight line back to Abe … and not have a hard time of it,” said Harry Harris, a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral who served as chief of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Abe “was a transformational leader for Japan and for the alliance. He’ll be missed by so many on both sides of the Indo-Pacific.”

Japan’s postwar constitution, written in 1947 when the country was occupied by U.S. forces, baked in a commitment to pacifism in a bid to prevent a return to the militarism that defined imperial Japan. Faced with a public mindful of the horrors of war, Abe failed in his long-standing aim of revising the country’s constitution to remove a clause renouncing war, but in 2015 the country’s parliament passed legislation to allow for the use of force in limited circumstances for self-defense. Abe succeeded in pursuing a series of institutional reforms to overhaul the country’s national security apparatus, including the establishment of a national security council, the adoption of the country’s first-ever national security strategy in 2013, and the centralization of decision-making within the office of the prime minister. 

Abe’s desire to move past Japan’s World War II legacy had a darker side, as critics frequently accused him of revising history and downplaying atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. Despite his pragmatism, Abe nearly torched the country’s relationship with South Korea, one of Japan’s most significant security and trade partners, launching a trade war in 2018 over a South Korean Supreme Court decision that called on Japan to pay reparations of $89,000 over its use of Korean slave labor during the war. 

When Abe returned for his second stint in power in 2012, Japan’s relationship with China was at a nadir, following a decision by his predecessor Yoshihiko Noda to nationalize the hotly disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu Islands. Relations remained chilly throughout much of Abe’s tenure. Then-President Barack Obama reaffirmed a U.S. security commitment to Japan, even over any fight in the disputed islands.

“It was central to make sure that the United States remained fully vested in the region,” said Mireya Solís, the director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. “Abe felt very strongly that Japan could not live in an Asia where China had hegemony.” 

It underpinned his efforts to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific and his commitment to the Quad with India, the United States, and Australia. During the Trump administration, which strained the U.S. relationship with many allies, Abe waged a charm offensive, flying to New York to meet with Trump before his inauguration. 

Abe’s efforts to tie the Pacific and Indian oceans together in the minds of U.S. policymakers and expand regional alliances also conferred benefits at home in pacifist Japan and in drawing in India, which remains formally militarily nonaligned. 

“You can push back on China without ever saying you’re pushing back on China,” said Hornung, the Rand Corp. expert. “It’s just by upholding the principles of freedom and transparency. It was really ingenious because it was a strategy—even though the Japanese government will never say it is—to try to curb Chinese influence and to push back on all that China is doing without ever once mentioning China.” 

Following his surprise retirement in 2020, Abe remained a force in Japanese politics, speaking out in defense of Taiwan and warning in December that any Chinese advances on the island would be “economic suicide.” In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in April, he highlighted the similarities between Taiwan and Ukraine and argued that Washington’s position of strategic ambiguity had become untenable. “The time has come for the U.S. to make clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion,” he wrote. 

And he was set to be a kingmaker in Japanese politics before his killing. Experts and officials believe that Abe’s influence is still being felt. In a little over a decade, Japan has pushed toward spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, a steep change in a country that for decades barely managed half of that. Japan also continues to move the needle toward a more offensive footing militarily: Abe’s successor, Fumio Kishida, has even put forward the use of preemptive strikes against hostile actors—something that would have been unthinkable just years before. 

“Abe was really the first one to raise the red flag and say China is a challenge,” Hornung said. “It’s not just a defense issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a diplomatic issue. It’s a full whole-of-government issue. In that way, Abe was really unique and set the tone for what’s to come for the Self-Defense Forces.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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