Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Bill Emmott: Reflecting on the diplomatic and security legacy of Shinzo Abe

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

The tragic killing of Shinzo Abe has produced a renewed, and from a Japanese point of view quite welcome, focus on the legacy he left behind. There can be no real doubt that Mr Abe's greatest achievements as prime minister lay in foreign and security policy. Nor is there much room for dispute about the fact that Japan's foreign stance in 2022 is far clearer and stronger than it was when Abe returned to the role for his second term in 2012. Yet there remains much that needs to be done to complete the task.

    When thinking about how much the international view of Japan and its foreign policy has changed, I find myself thinking back, perhaps a little unfairly, to the time when I served as Tokyo Bureau Chief for The Economist in the 1980s. In those years Mr Abe's father, Shintaro Abe, was serving as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Nakasone administration.

    It is a little unfair because that era, when the Cold War was still under way but China remained a small presence diplomatically, economically and militarily, was so different to today's circumstances.

    Nonetheless, looking back to Shintaro Abe's time does provide a useful, if extreme, contrast, especially given the remarkable political continuity of this dynasty, connecting together three prime ministers (Nobusuke Kishi, Eisuke Sato and Shinzo Abe), one foreign minister, and the currently serving defence minister, Shinzo Abe's younger brother, Nobuo Kishi.

    The key point that stood out to international observers about Japan's foreign stance in that 1980s era was that it combined two goals: to stay close to the United States by managing trade friction and, as Prime Minister Nakasone memorably put it, by acting as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for the U.S. in East Asia; and to otherwise keep a low profile so as to avoid offending anyone else. Shintaro Abe called this "omnidirectional diplomacy," which seemed to mean a passive, generally reactive posture, talking to everyone but saying very little that was clear or specific.

    This impression was not entirely accurate. Japan at that time was becoming a major donor of foreign aid and was using its growing flow of foreign investment and of public and private lending to serve its national interests. It was becoming an important provider of grants and loans to support China's development too.

    Yet what was missing from Japanese foreign and security policy in Mr Abe's father's era, and which remained largely missing through the 1990s too, was a clear sense of purpose and a serious, coherent national security strategy, beyond the one that had been defined under the revised U.S.-Japan Security Alliance by Mr Abe's grandfather, Mr Kishi, in 1960. Dependency on the United States was the principal characteristic, making the management of the U.S.-Japan relationship the key activity, especially for prime ministers.

    This was also reflected in the structure of Japan's governing institutions: a weak prime minister's office, with only limited foreign-policy capacity and very limited security overview; a defence agency still not yet termed a ministry and with circumscribed powers thanks to the 1948 constitution and to a public stigma; and a weak, almost non-existent intelligence or broad national security capability.

    For that reason, I suspect historians will credit the 2012-20 period of Abe's prime ministerial career as being notable chiefly for its institutional innovations. Mr Abe continued the strengthening of the prime minister's office that had been begun especially under prime ministers Hashimoto and Koizumi, but crucially added Japan's first national security secretariat, within the Cabinet Office, and the drafting of the first official National Security Strategy.

    Historians will also, however, note that thanks to his longevity in office, Mr Abe was able to succeed in building much stronger relationships for Japan, especially in East and South-East Asia, which he visited far more regularly than previous holders of his office. This also put him in a powerful position to achieve what was arguably his greatest diplomatic triumph, namely the resurrection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership for trade and investment following Donald Trump's withdrawal in 2017.

    The renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership represented a new form of Japanese institutional leadership, seating it as the largest economy in a regional rule-setting body. The CPTPP is the living embodiment of the "liberal rules-based order" that Abe and now his successors have repeatedly said Japan is dedicated to defending and building.

    Alongside a steady strengthening of Japan's defence capabilities, especially through the Maritime Self-Defence Force and the Coast Guard, these institutional reforms and this new diplomatic sense of purpose and energy have combined to give Japan what is perceived to be a considerably greater influence over regional affairs than at any time since 1945.

    As Mr Abe knew well, it is neither possible nor desirable for Japan to aspire to achieve autonomy from the United States in defence, security or diplomacy. His efforts to develop a close relationship with Donald Trump were also notable: In an era when America is becoming less reliable, Abe's actions seemed to indicate a view that staying close to the American leadership has become even more important.

    Rather than strategic autonomy, what the Abe-era foreign and security policy have worked towards is a sense of strategic "agency": in other words, an ability for Japan to exert its own, independent influence through regional diplomacy, military ties and institutions, and by playing a bigger role in the region potentially also a more crucial ally for the U.S. too.

    This new strategic "agency" offers good lessons for Europe too in how it needs to develop and adapt. Yet for Japan too the task is far from complete. Mr Abe's successors, notably now Fumio Kishida, clearly realise that Japan needs to increase its defence budget and to contribute more to the deterrence of a potential Chinese seizure of Taiwan.

    A key task promises to be one that Mr Abe never seriously attempted: the construction of a much stronger intelligence and counterintelligence operation, one that is both robust and accountable. If Japan is to maintain this sense of "agency," it needs to be up with the best in terms of knowing what is going on in its region, and needs to become a trusted and reliable partner for the best foreign intelligence agencies too.

    The important thing about a legacy such as Mr Abe's in foreign and security affairs is that the legacy needs to be maintained and extended.

    (By Bill Emmott. Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media