The question of how to devise a grand strategy to transform Japan into a “normalized” great power and compete with an “assertive China” without war had never escaped the attention of Shinzo Abe since the beginning of his first term as prime minister, in 2006. His recent assassination has prompted a review of his grand strategy.
In the following discussion, we try to capture what Abe had done to promote and consolidate his grand Indo-Pacific strategy from 2006 until his death, assessing whether his efforts had tilted the regional balance of power in favor of Japan. We will also examine whether and to what extent his legacy will outlive his tragic death.
Most of the postwar Japanese approach to the world was shaped by the first postwar prime minister, Yoshida Shigeru. He focused on economic expansion and demilitarization.
In the 1970s, then-prime minister Takeo Fukuda emphasized Japan’s commitment to share peace and prosperity with the rest of Asia and reiterated Japan’s promise of not becoming a military power. Since the end of World War II, Japan has maintained only a self-defense force.
The famous “no war” clause inserted personally by US General Douglas MacArthur into the new Japanese Constitution of 1946 has constituted a sword of Damocles over any Japanese attempts to use military means to invade other countries.
ALSO READ: Japanese PM to push forward amending pacifist constitution
According to Article 9 of the new Constitution, “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”.
Unlike his predecessors, Abe was determined to transform Japan into a “normalized” nation with a “normalized” military force by amending its pacifist Constitution. Besides attracting criticism from Japan’s neighbors, Abe’s controversial proposal has remained a source of tension within Japanese politics.
In recent years, Abe’s campaign for a revision of the pacifist Constitution has been reinforced by the alleged need for Japan to work with the US in military contingencies outside of Japan, including the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea and Taiwan.
More than previous Japanese leaders, Abe was preoccupied with the hallucinatory need to hedge against China’s rise. Raising the issue of a perceived “China threat” to the forefront of consciousness in Japan and abroad, Abe was the first world leader to elaborate on the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
More than previous Japanese leaders, Abe was preoccupied with the hallucinatory need to hedge against China’s rise
Michael J Green, in his book Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo, argues that Abe tried to shape the external strategic environment with the US, Australia and India in an attempt to encircle China and hedge against the mounting “China threat” in political, military and economic aspects.
ALSO READ: The 2.5 seconds that sealed Shinzo Abe's fate
At the same time, Abe believed that Japan should maintain its strong economic relationship with China. Green calls it “competition without war”. Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell call this strategy “competition without catastrophe”.
Further attempts to encircle China were made by Abe to strengthen Japan’s relationship with like-minded Association of Southeast Asian Nations members.
During his second term as prime minister, Abe worked very hard to turn the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) into a counterweight to China. He also tried his best to convince like-minded ASEAN states to play their respective roles in encircling China.
During the second term of then-US president Barack Obama (2013-17), the US pursued a “pivot to East Asia” policy. Some American diplomats still thought that Japan was overreacting to China’s rise.
As a peace-loving country, China is not a threat to Japan and other countries in the region. From the perspective of victims of Japanese militarism, Japan should abandon any plans to revise its pacifist Constitution because it will sow distrust and alarm other countries in the Asia-Pacific region instead
When Donald Trump came to power, the US made a U-turn and embraced the free and open Indo-Pacific policy propagated by Abe. Joe Biden has gone a step further by moving the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy to the core of the US’ approach to Asia.
ALSO READ: Kishida may now take defense mantle of slain mentor Abe
According to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, over 80 percent of American elites and two-thirds of the public want the US to work with Japan.
Australia and India are also willing to work with Japan to deal with emerging challenges in the region. However, this kind of “China threat” hyping invariably left out the fact that China was first and foremost the No 1 trading partner of those countries back then.
Economically, Abe played a critical role in salvaging the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. After Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in 2017, Abe called the 10 other TPP member countries and ultimately won their support for a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Part of Abe’s strategic calculation was that the CPTPP should be designed to prevent China from becoming a rule-maker in regional trade agreements.
We cannot deny that Abe, who became the leader of the most important faction in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after his resignation as prime minister in 2020, was a “shadow shogun” in Japanese politics.
ALSO READ: Abe becomes Japan's longest-serving prime minister
In terms of strategic intent, he has fixed Japan’s trajectory in a way that subsequent prime ministers are generally going to follow for years. Though Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appears to be more moderate on defense issues, he could not ignore the LDP’s promise to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP.
Following the victory of the ruling bloc in recent Upper House elections, Kishida will also find difficulty in sweeping the proposal to amend the pacifist Constitution under the carpet. Only an unfavorable result in public referendum will put a brake on constitutional revision.
Abe has left behind a considerable legacy in other aspects. For example, the effects of forming the CPTPP, the quality infrastructure initiative, the proposal on data governance, and measures to promote gender equality are too important to be ignored by future LDP leaders. Even opposition leaders cannot ignore his legacy.
Finally, Abe’s controversial role in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific to contain China should be put under microscopic scrutiny by future historians because the above grand strategy is based on a neurotic fear of the peaceful rise of China.
READ MORE: Japan's Abe resumes constitution quest in bid to burnish legacy
As a peace-loving country, China is not a threat to Japan and other countries in the region. From the perspective of victims of Japanese militarism, Japan should abandon any plans to revise its pacifist Constitution because it will sow distrust and alarm other countries in the Asia-Pacific region instead.
Junius Ho Kwan-yiu is a Legislative Council member and a solicitor. Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, a part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and the Macao Basic Law Research Center, and co-founder of the Together We Can and Hong Kong Coalition.
HONG KONG NEWS