How Japan’s Shinzo Abe Changed America’s View of Asia and China

He foresaw that the rapid growth of China’s People’s Liberation Army, fueled by one of the world’s fastest growing economies, would upset the regional balance of power, and argued that Japan would have to rethink its post-war policies as a result of this shift. US-imposed pacifist constitution.

In 2014, the Abe government rethought this constitution to theoretically allow the Japanese military to fight overseas. And he gave her the tools to do so by buying stealth fighters and building Japan’s first aircraft carriers since World War II.

But perhaps his greatest contribution to the defense of his country – and for many to the security of the entire Asian region – lies not in military equipment, but in language; in his coining of the simple phrase: “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Paradigm shift

With those few words, Abe changed the way many foreign policy leaders talk and think about Asia.

Today, much to the annoyance of Chinese leaders, the phrase is ubiquitous. It is used as a mantra by the US military and is the vocabulary of choice for any aspiring Western diplomat.

So it’s hard to remember that before Abe, few people in these circles talked about the “Indo-Pacific” at all.

Prior to 2007, Washington preferred to view Asia as a huge stretch of the globe, stretching from Australia to China and the United States, and call it the “Asia-Pacific region.”

At the center of the concept was China, anathema to Abe, who, like many Japanese, feared that Beijing’s growing influence meant his country could be intimidated by a much larger neighbor.

Abe’s goal was to encourage the world to look at Asia through a much broader lens – through the prism of the “Indo-Pacific,” a concept spanning both the Indian and Pacific Oceans that he first promoted in a 2007 speech in the Indian Parliament under titled “Merger”. two seas.

This rethinking of Asia’s borders did two things. First, it shifted the geographic center to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, conveniently focusing on an area of ​​the world where Beijing has territorial disputes with a number of countries.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he presented the only country in the world that could act as a counterweight to China just because of its size: India.
Japanese helicopter carrier Huga at the pier in Yokohama in 2009.

Bringing India into the fold

Abe acknowledged India’s “importance as a democratic balancer of future Chinese hegemony” and “began to systematically induce Indian leaders to falsify,” John Hemmings of the EastWest Center in Washington wrote in Abe’s 2020 assessment, which coincided with the end of his second tenure as prime minister. -minister.

“Including a democratic India in the future of Asia was not only good geopolitics, but also good geoeconomics, as India’s population and democratic system balanced an equally large Chinese population and an authoritarian system.”

Abe was the driving force behind the Quadripartite Security Dialogue, or Quad, which led India into partnership with Japan, the US and Australia, which began the same year as his “Merge the Two Seas” speech.

The partnership has its roots in relief efforts for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but it received an “ideological component” in Abe’s 2006 campaign speech. Then, in 2007, it resurfaced as a strategic forum that hosted semi-regular summits, exchanges of information, and, most importantly, joint military exercises that met resistance from China.

Months later, Abe outlined his vision for a “wider Asia…a vast network” of countries that share “fundamental values” such as freedom and democracy and common strategic interests.

This description seems to leave little room for China, which has since felt threatened by the Quartet and whose Foreign Minister Wang Yi openly accused the US of trying to encircle China with an “Indo-Pacific NATO.”

Shinzo Abe meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi in December 2015.

Free and open Indo-Pacific

When it seemed for a while that China’s hostility might doom the Quartet, which collapsed in 2008 under threats of economic retribution from Beijing, Abe played his part again.

According to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Abe first laid out his vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in a keynote speech in Kenya in 2016.

His vision had three pillars: the promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade; striving for economic prosperity; and a commitment to peace and stability.

Akie Abe, widow of slain leader Shinzo Abe, has created a new model for Japan's first ladies.

The term “served as a backdrop to Beijing’s increasingly China-centric vision of Asia’s future while promoting openness and values ​​to attract regional hedgers,” said Hemmings of the East-West Center.

A year after Abe’s speech in Kenya, the Quad was resurrected, and the Trump administration unveiled its own vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

By the time of Abe’s death, the Quad had expanded considerably. Over the past two years, the four countries have held two joint naval exercises organized under the slogan of promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Abe’s legacy

In a letter following Abe’s death, Robert Ward, Japan’s chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted how Abe restructured his country’s foreign policy “driven by his rapid recognition of the threat to Japan and the regional order from China’s rapid rise.”

Thus, wrote Ward, “it is difficult to overestimate the transformational significance of his legacy, both within Japan and beyond.”

The breadth of Abe’s influence is evident from the tribute that followed his death.

Among the statesmen paying their respects was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who called Abe a “dear friend” after meeting him in 2007 and declared last Saturday a day of national mourning in India for the former Japanese leader.

The tribute of respect from the United States, China’s biggest rival and Japan’s biggest military ally, is also indicative.

Under Abe, U.S.-Japan ties have reached a “new level,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, as reflected in President Joe Biden’s order that U.S. flags be flown at half mast. in all public buildings in the country and all federal facilities around the world.

This was also reflected in the official White House tribute. Abe was “a true friend of the United States,” the White House said. “He has worked with American presidents of both parties to deepen the alliance between our nations and advance a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Joe Biden meets with Shinzo Abe in New York in 2014.

Words of memory

That phrase again: “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The phrase has become ubiquitous in U.S. political and military statements, and in 2018, the Pentagon’s Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii changed its name to Indo-Pacific Command to recognize “the growing connection between the Indian and Pacific Oceans as America orients itself to the West.”

Crowds gather in Tokyo to say goodbye to the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In a speech titled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in Indonesia last December, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington “will work with our allies and partners to defend the rules-based order that we have built together over decades to ensure to keep the region open and accessible.”

Then at the Shangri La Dialogue conference in Singapore last month, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin used the term “rules-based order” or variants of it eight times.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida used the term 19 times to explain Japan’s promotion of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, which has “received broad support in the international community”.

This “broad support” may be Abe’s most enduring legacy. A sort of homage to the vision that Abe hinted at eight years earlier in his speech to Shangri La Dialogue.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken delivers a speech titled

Telling his audience that Tokyo was ready to take the lead in making the region prosperous for all, Abe urged all countries to abide by international law so that future generations can “share in this bounty.”

“If you imagine how vast the Pacific and Indian oceans are, our potential is exactly the same as the oceans,” Abe said. “Boundless, isn’t it?”