Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated at a campaign event by a Japanese national last Friday. As the longest-serving PM in Japan’s history and one of the most consequential ones, the effects of his death have already been felt worldwide. For one of Abe’s legacies was advocating for the security of his country and neighboring Taiwan.
Known as a staunch anti-communist, Abe advocated for Japan’s leading role in defending democratic values in the Asia Pacific region to counter China’s growing military power and global ambition. He worked well with President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump and made Japan the most reliable U.S. partner in the Asia-Pacific. He once said, “Japan can keep the power balance of this region if Japan and the U.S. join forces.”
Abe was credited with introducing the concept of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” after China militarized the South China Sea through building artificial islands, and he was instrumental in forming Quad, an informal alliance including the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. All four nations are aligned in their shared concerns about China’s expanding military and its growing willingness to challenge democratic values.
The Quad held its first joint military exercise in November 2020. When Joe Biden became president of the United States, he threw many of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives out the window, but he kept the U.S. involvement with Quad. The fact that both Trump and Biden embraced Quad was a testament to Abe’s vision and influence.
Taiwan’s Ties to Japan
After stepping down as prime minister in late 2020, Abe didn’t fade into history’s background. He remained the most influential political leader in Japan and continued to serve as the head of the largest faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and was a trusted adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Abe had become more outspoken, especially on the Taiwan issue, as the island has had to endure growing intimidation and harassment from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
In December 2021, at a forum organized by a Taiwanese think tank, Abe said, “A stronger Taiwan, a thriving Taiwan, and a Taiwan that guarantees freedom and human rights are also in Japan’s interests. Of course, this is also in the interests of the whole world.” Abe noted that the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands — which China calls the Diaoyu Islands and says are Chinese territories — are only 62 miles away from Taiwan. He worried that if China invaded Taiwan, Japan’s territories could be the next target of China’s PLA. Thus, Abe warned, “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance. People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognizing this.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Abe called on the Biden administration to abandon the U.S. government’s long-held “strategic ambiguity” position on Taiwan, which doesn’t commit the United States to Taiwan’s defense. “The people of Taiwan share our universal values, so I think the U.S. should firmly abandon its ambiguity,” Abe said.
He further pointed out that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would endanger Japan’s national security because “to secure wide air superiority” in an operation against Taiwan, China “would also cover Japan’s airspace. [China] would also conduct operations in and above the waters, so this would affect Japan’s territorial waters, or at least our exclusive economic zone.”
Most world leaders have remained muted on the Taiwan issue out of fear of Beijing’s economic coercion and military might. Abe stood out on the world stage due to his unequivocal public support of Taiwan and warning of China’s aggression.
Strengthening Japan’s Defenses
Abe also advocated for other ways to shore up Japan’s defense against China. He started a debate on housing American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s nuclear-sharing arrangement, an idea first brought up by Trump. As the only country attacked by atomic weapons in the past, hosting nuclear weapons had been a non-starter in Japan. But the Ukraine crisis has compelled the Japanese public to contemplate the unthinkable.
While not ready to discuss nuclear-sharing with the United States, PM Kishida recently announced that Japan would “fundamentally reinforce its defense capabilities within the next five years.” He promised to dramatically increase Japan’s defense budget from 1 percent of gross domestic product to 2 percent. Kishida also pledged to provide at least $2 billion in aid to Indo-Pacific countries. It’s fair to say that Kishida probably would not have taken such bold steps without the backing from Abe.
Abe’s advocacy for strengthening Japan’s military and open support for Taiwan made him a target of Chinese nationalists. Some of them celebrated his death last Friday.
Abe’s Domestic Policies
Abe came from a political dynasty in Japan. His grandfather Nobusuke Kishi served as Japan’s prime minister from 1957 to 1960, and his father, Shintaro Abe, served as Japan’s foreign minister in the early 1980s.
Shinzo Abe first became Japan’s prime minister in 2006, resigning after a short tenure due to health issues. He became Japan’s prime minister again in 2012. After serving for eight years, he had to resign in late 2020, again due to health issues.
Most observers agree that Abe’s foreign policy was much more successful than his domestic one. His efforts to revive Japan’s economy achieved mixed results. For example, his economic programs, known as “Abenomics,” couldn’t get Japan out of its long stagnation despite early successes (the lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t help either).
On national defense, Abe failed to revise Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which was adopted after World War II and aimed to prevent the nation from establishing any “war potential.” Abe did, however, manage to introduce a reinterpretation of the constitution. With legislative approval, such a reinterpretation allowed Japan to increase defense spending and the nation’s self-defense forces to cooperate closely with the U.S. military outside Japan. Abe’s reinterpretation was criticized by Japan’s pacifist faction and neighboring countries such as China and South Korea — both nations suffered enormous loss of lives and destruction during their wars with Japan, so animosity lingers on. But Abe believed that Japan must strengthen its military to counter the aggressions from both China and North Korea.
With Abe’s death, both Japan and Taiwan lost an influential advocate. The region’s peace and security face more uncertainty now.