Mr. Abe pitched for Japan to become “a guardian of the global commons” particularly in an increasingly contested maritime domain.
“Japan is back,” announced Shinzo Abe in a speech during a visit to the United States in February 2013, shortly after he became Japan’s Prime Minister for the second time. His first stint at the helm in 2006 only lasted a year, cut short both by health problems and political controversies that diminished his popularity. This time, he promised, he wasn’t going anywhere.He didn’t. Over the next seven years, Mr. Abe, who announced his retirement on Friday because of health reasons, would not only become his country’s longest-serving Prime Minister, but one who would leave a lasting legacy on Japan’s foreign policy, defence strategy, and role in Asia.Also read: When longevity is the biggest achievement: on Shinzo Abe“Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country,” he had said in the 2013 speech, outlining three priorities for his foreign policy. The first, he said, was for Japan to be a leading promoter of rules for trade and in other areas in the “Indo-Pacific region” – a term Mr. Abe was among the first to popularise, as long back as in 2007, when in an address to the Indian Parliament, he reflected how “the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity”.He also pitched for Japan to become “a guardian of the global commons” particularly in an increasingly contested maritime domain, and to work closely with “like-minded democracies”, such as the United States, India, Australia and South Korea.Also read: Another hospital visit by Japan PM Abe stokes health worriesHe broadly succeeded on all three fronts, says Hiroyuki Akita, a commentator at Nikkei in Tokyo. “He made great achievements in foreign and security affairs,” he told The Hindu. “In particular, he strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance significantly, and based on that, he established a base for regional security cooperation by the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia [or Quad]. This framework has been, and will be, an important asset for the peace and stability in Indo-Pacific.”Deepening relations with India, both on the investment front and through stepped up security cooperation under the Quad, had been a priority for Mr. Abe’s foreign policy, although some initiatives, such as the bullet train corridor, did not take off. Also read: Abe’s political legacy is at stakeMr. Akita says his other lasting legacy will be his shepherding of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, seen as an economic counter to China. “While the Trump administration leaned toward trade protectionism, the Abe administration managed to establish TPP even without US, thereby enabling the Asia Pacific region to somehow maintain a momentum of free trade,” he said.Mr. Abe also championed a greater global role for Japan, and sought to remove some of the shackles imposed on Japan’s military by its post Second World War pacifist constitution. While he failed to change Article 9 of the constitution, under his watch Japan amended laws that will allow its armed forces to be deployed overseas and the military for the first time took part in exercises on foreign soil.Richard McGregor, Senior Fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of “Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century”, said “there is no doubt that Abe has been a hugely consequential prime minister, even without achieving two of his main goals, a revision of the country’s postwar constitution and a peace treaty with Russia.”“He has substantially rebuilt relations with Beijing, even as Japan has competed head-on with China on influence and investment in the region, and without conceding on territorial issues. He has also made Japan perhaps the most respected diplomatic player in the Indo-Pacific, which is saying something, given Japan’s size relative to the US and China,” he said. On China, Mr. Abe was less hawkish than many expected him to be, both home and abroad, as he balanced a fine line between courting China economically while mounting a robust counter to China’s deepening influence in the region. He took over just as relations hit a nadir in 2012, when China had essentially cut off all ties angered by a move to “nationalise” the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. “Diplomatically and economically, he has improved relations with China,” said Yoshikazu Kato, an expert on Japan-China relations at the Asia Global Institute in Hong Kong, noting that he went ahead with a visit in 2014 to Beijing for the APEC summit and sought a meeting with President Xi Jinping despite some opposition at home.While not budging on Japan’s sovereignty, he at the same time made some concessions such as agreeing a four point consensus on the East China Sea in which, Mr. Kato said, Japan “finally acknowledged territorial disputes existed, which it previously did not.” “In my view, Abe was not hard enough on China, in part because he has been driven by economic interests and the need to protect the interests of Japan’s industry,” he said.While Mr. Abe might have changed Japanese foreign policy, it is “an open question to whether he has changed the country itself”, said Mr. McGregor. “There is still little public support for constitutional revision to free up the military, despite rising threats from China and North Korea,” he said. “Japan itself is still caught in the dilemma of many countries in Asia, of relying on an alliance with the U.S. for security, and for its economic future, on China. Japan’s choices into the future are only going to get harder.”