Shinzo Abe: He will be missed

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Statesmen only come once in a while. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, assassinated on July 8 in Nara, Japan, was a statesman.

He was the first of about 20 Japanese prime ministers to earn the title in the 35 years since Yasuhiro Nakasone took office.

Even though Abe had resigned in 2020, he still played an important role in pushing to build Japan’s defenses, strengthen the US-Japan alliance, support Taiwan and confront the looming threat from Communist China.

He will be greatly missed.

Abe had a strategic view of Japan’s role in the world. He acknowledged that Japan could no longer sit quietly, writing the occasional check, as events unfolded around him.

(L to R) US President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attend a meeting on the digital economy at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28, 2019. (Jacques Witt/AFP via Getty Images)

Above all, he saw that close ties with the United States were indispensable for Japan – and that forging a strong Japanese-American relationship required Tokyo to become a more useful ally. And by playing an active regional and global role, including militarily, Japan could increase its stature and influence.

To this end, Abe traveled the world. Being seen and heard made a difference and stood in stark contrast to the low international profile of most previous Japanese prime ministers.

Abe also ordered the Japan Self-Defense Forces to expand military-to-military engagements, exercises and talks throughout the Asia-Pacific region and even Europe. It was unthinkable a few years ago.

Additionally, following Abe’s success in relaxing defense export rules, Japan supplied second-hand aircraft and ships to the Philippines and Vietnam and, in an act of strategic vision, attempted to sell Japanese submarines to Australia. It would have upset the regional strategic order – in a good way – if Australia’s Turnbull administration had not lost its temper and canceled what would have been a ‘done’ deal.

The Australians opted for a French bidder instead, and a few years later the deal was terminated as an embarrassing and costly failure.

Although China complains, predictably, Japan’s military outreach is still welcomed in the region, Australia, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Pacific island nations and others welcoming Japan’s security cooperation.

And without Abe, there would be no “Quad”, the loose security alliance between the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

Epoch Times Photo
(L to R) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for photos in the lobby of the Prime Minister of Japan’s office in Tokyo on May 24, 2022. (Zhang Xiaoyu/Reuters)

It should be remembered that Abe was not the first prime minister to initiate this movement towards a more active defense and an assertive foreign policy. Yet he got things done much faster and farther than anyone since former Prime Minister Nakasone in the mid-1980s.

The United States had long wanted Japan to be a more active ally and play a larger defense role, both on its own and in league with American forces. Sadly, the US government lost a year after Abe was elected in 2012, holding him at bay for his views on history, comfort women and his reputation as a “right-winger”.

However, the Americans eventually got over it. They got what they wanted (and needed), as evidenced by the revision (and improvement) of the US-Japan defense guidelines in 2015 and Abe’s successful passage of measures expanding what Japan can do. under the doctrine of “collective self-defense”. There were no small feats.

When it came to resolving Okinawa’s grassroots issues, Abe strove to look at Japan’s defense from a national perspective rather than the narrow perspective of Okinawan activists and the opposition. externally prompted.

He nobly tried to finally push through the replacement of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma after Tokyo’s repeated promises to do so fell through.

He even bit his tongue and patiently tried to build a relationship with South Korea.

Abe didn’t snap his fingers and get what he wanted. It was a lot of work. It has always faced considerable national opposition. Abe could not ignore public opinion and so strove to explain his policy, albeit imperfectly but better than most, if not all, previous prime ministers.

Japan
The USS Abraham Lincoln (left) and JS Kongo (front) sail in formation during a U.S.-Japan bilateral exercise in the Sea of ​​Japan on April 12, 2022. (Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force via AP)

Besides challenges from opposition parties, Abe had many enemies within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. There was even a sizable LDP bloc opposed to Abe’s active defense policies, not to mention many politicians from all parties favoring a more accommodating stance toward China.

Abe also faced immense personal animosity from many people, both Japanese and foreign. In some ways, his recent murder was the predictable result of this unseemly hatred from people who should have known better.

And, of course, the Japanese bureaucracy dragged its feet more often than not. Indeed, for all his successes, Abe was unable to significantly increase defense spending – given the outsized influence of the Treasury – but he reversed a decade of declining defense budgets. defense and has managed at least modest increases each year.

And it wasn’t just defense where Abe did well. He kept the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive after the Americans refused to join – and thus maintained a “free world” version of a regional economic alliance – until the United States one day resumed its spirits.

Abe was a veritable Otto von Bismarck compared to many of his predecessors, who seemed to view a Japanese prime minister’s main objective as recycling central government money to privileged supporters and vice versa.

For them, foreign and military affairs were best left to risk-averse bureaucrats.

A separate word on economics: Abe is still – even after his death – ravaged by criticism, especially from abroad, for the perceived failure of “Abenomics”. Abe deserves a pass on this, especially since none of his predecessors over the past 25 years have had more success in reviving the economy.

Epoch Times Photo
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, speaks with Shigeru Ishiba, Japan’s minister in charge of boosting the local economy, during a plenary session at the lower house in Tokyo, Thursday, July 16, 2015. ( AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

Indeed, one could reasonably argue that Abe’s biggest mistake was not to listen carefully to the Treasury and the Bank of Japan, and then to do the opposite of what the bureaucrats recommended.

This writer has followed and written about Abe for a number of years. And I was wrong about one important thing. I thought that once Abe left as prime minister, the momentum he had created – especially on defense and foreign policy – would die out, and Japan would revert to the custom of short-lived prime ministers and ineffective and to an action-based defense and foreign policy. as small as possible.

He does not have. Indeed, Abe’s successors continue on the path he set Japan on. And Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently talked about doubling the defense budget and “fundamentally strengthening” Japan’s defense. And the Chinese threat (and others) is now almost common wisdom among Japanese citizens and much of the political class.

The world needs an assertive and active Japan, a country of individual freedom, consensual government and the rule of law. And the world needs the proactive, engaged, and militarily capable nation that Abe tried to create.

Japan is lucky to have had it, as are Americans and other free nations.

Say what you will, Shinzo Abe left Japan better than he found it.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Grant Newsham

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