Following a visit to the Mitsubishi and Kawasaki shipyards at Kobe in 2015, Shinzo Abe informed me at a meeting in Tokyo the next day that I had done something in Japan that he had not. ‘What is that, Prime Minister?’ I asked. ‘You have been on a Japanese submarine,’ he replied. Such was the sensitivity of the vessels that even the nation’s longest-serving prime minister apparently had not been on one. Yet the Japanese government was prepared to work with Australia to share its most guarded military equipment. It was a mark of the close co-operation that had developed between our nations and particularly between Prime Ministers Abe and Abbott. As Tony Abbott wrote last week, ‘Only an intimate friend would have agreed to put this process in train, as submarines (even conventional ones) are the “crown jewels” of weapons systems. We both knew a submarines partnership, more so than a formal treaty, would turn our countries into the closest military allies.’
Sadly, a Japanese vessel didn’t come to pass, another victim of Australia’s sorry submarine saga, when the Turnbull government signed up to what the Morrison government subsequently decided was an unachievable deal with the French. Fortunately for Australia, Abe was able to look beyond the decision to the greater strategic interests of our two nations.
Abe’s strategic farsightedness will be his lasting legacy. A previous generation of leaders — including his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister in the late 1950s — established the basis for Japan’s growth from the 1960s signing agreements with many nations, including Australia. Abe envisaged a free, democratic, and dynamic region. He understood that an authoritarian Chinese regime was the biggest threat to regional peace and prosperity. At this time, when many observers believed that China would develop into some form of liberal polity, many businessmen were enamoured with the Middle Kingdom, and from November 2007 our prime minister was a confirmed Sinophile, Abe was clear-eyed about the challenges. His address to the Indian parliament in August 2007 laid out a vision for Asia.
‘The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A “broader Asia” that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. . . . Japan and India have come of late to be of the same intent to form a “Strategic Global Partnership” in which the two countries are going to expand and fortify their relations. This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests.’
‘Japanese diplomacy is now promoting various concepts in a host of different areas so that a region called “the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” will be formed along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent. The Strategic Global Partnership of Japan and India is pivotal for such pursuits to be successful. By Japan and India coming together in this way, this “broader Asia” will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely. Can we not say that faced with this wide, open, broader Asia, it is incumbent upon us two democracies, Japan and India, to carry out the pursuit of freedom and prosperity in the region? In addition, as maritime states, both India and Japan have vital interests in the security of sea lanes. It goes without saying that the sea lanes to which I refer are the shipping routes that are the most critical for the world economy. From now on, let us together bear this weighty responsibility that has been entrusted to us by joining forces with like-minded countries…’’
With these short paragraphs, Abe shared his vision for the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, and a rights-based, rules-observing doctrine for the region. His approach was the basis of free trade arrangements and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Abe was an indefatigable traveller, visiting 176 countries and establishing Japan as a regional leader. After his death, his foreign policy speech writer of eight years, Tomohiko Taniguchi, observed: ‘Abe took on such a brutal travel schedule out of strategic reasons. He wanted to expand Japan’s diplomatic horizon and invest in relations with democratic allies and partners, with the belief that only by uplifting Japan’s international status could Japan defend itself from the coercive behaviours from its neighbours: Russia, North Korea and China – all of which are nuclear powers and none of them even closely resembling an open democracy. . . Japan is, and will always be, a maritime nation that sits on the periphery of the vast land mass – which is currently dominated by undemocratic, militarist powers.’
During his second term, Abe visited China, the first Japanese prime minister to do so for seven years. He was realistic about the authoritarian CCP regime, calling recently for strategic clarity from the US towards Taiwan. He made it clear to all, China included, that an attack on Taiwan would be an attack on Japan. More than any other Japanese leader, Abe ended the Yoshida Doctrine which had been in place from the end of the second world war, having realised that Japan must be capable of standing equally with its allies in the face of regional coercion.
Abe’s greatest legacy may be about to occur: the repeal of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Inserted after the second world war, the Article precludes the establishment of military forces and the use of force. The Americans have long since regretted its inclusion and the Japanese Supreme Court has allowed the nation to establish Self-Defense Forces, now larger than those of many surrounding nations. The Liberal Democratic party has opposed the Article since 1955. In the elections in which Abe was assassinated, parties supportive of constitutional revision gained the two-thirds majority necessary to instigate the parliamentary procedures.
Abe has been greatly praised since his tragic death and rightly so. The world has lost a statesman, a democrat and a visionary leader.
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