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The Legacy of Shinzo Abe

Shinzo Abe
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the Prime Minister's Official Residence the Kantei, in Tokyo, Aug. 18, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Friday brought news of the shocking assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A remarkable stream of tributes followed on all forms of media. I wish to add my own tribute, not as a unique contribution to scholarship, but as a tribute to a remarkable man I was honored to meet on occasion before and during his most recent term as Prime Minister of Japan.

Reflecting on a Legacy

When he passed, he left a legacy of major contributions to Japan’s defense, U.S. policy in Asia, our military alliance, Japanese and U.S. support for Taiwan, and even our trade policies. And he did it with skill and grace, and a touch of humor. 

PM Abe recognized the threat from China while the U.S. was still concentrating on engagement and building relationships. He knew that a U.S. presence and defense contribution was essential and made that well known and accepted. 

On a 2015 visit to the United States, the first official visit by a Japanese PM in nine years, he previewed substantive defense changes. In remarks to Congress and to other audiences, he “told a story” to preview the need to change Japan’s policy on collective self-defense. This right of all nations, long sanctioned by the United Nations, was considered proscribed by Japan’s constitution. Bi-lateral military contingency planning was therefore proscribed. 

Abe’s illustrative story asked his audience to imagine an American Aegis ship engaged in missile defense of Japan coming under attack by some other means. Abe asked why Japan should not be able to aid the defense of that ship. Rolling this story out publicly in a supportive America had a bracing effect on Japanese lawmakers and the public, and soon led to a new interpretation of Japan’s constitution. Collective Self-Defense is now accepted. 

Abe conducted many public events to signal that U.S.’s contributions to the common defense were a good thing. In 2015 he paid an extended call on the USS Ronald Reagan, our nuclear-powered aircraft carrier based in Japan. He even wore a Naval Aviator flight jacket. In 2016 he was the first Japanese PM to visit Pearl Harbor. He later hosted President Obama on a visit to Hiroshima. 

Domestic and Strategic Policy

Abe paid attention to policy too. The “Quad”, a group of democracies including Japan, Australia, India, and the United States, was initiated with his “security diamond.”  Japan was also the first to call for a Free and Open Indo Pacific, or FOIP for short, in 2016.  Both initiatives endure.

After the leading presidential candidate of each U.S. political party disavowed our own Transpacific Partnership (TPP) ahead of our 2016 presidential election, Japan and PM Abe assumed leadership. They renamed it the Comprehensive and Progressive Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP). This helped salvage the system of international trade and commerce favored by democratic nations. Japan kindly left the door open for the U.S. to rejoin when the country rediscovers the group’s historic, and profitable, support for international trade. 

He reorganized Japan’s national security sector, with the creation of a National Security Council to enforce coordination across the government and Self-Defense forces, and to ensure effective emergency responses. Never again would the PM and his office be out of the loop in a disaster like the 3-11 Triple Disaster in 2011. 

Japan’s Defense Policy Adopted Under Abe

Defense industrial policy changed. Since 1945, Japan prohibited military equipment export. PM Abe turned that around, lashing the industry to compete internationally. Very shortly after that, Australia made known its interest in new conventional submarines. As a result, Japanese industry became aware of the sharp elbows and sharper politics and economics in international arms sales competition by entering perhaps the toughest challenge possible. The submarine venture failed, but other arms transfers did succeed and more will continue, to the benefit of other countries and regional deterrence. 

After departing the PM’s office, Abe exploited his position in the Liberal Democratic Party to continue his leadership. He raised issues that were awkward, to say the least, for those in office. 

As North Korea and others rattled their nuclear sabers, Abe said it was time for the U.S. and Japan to talk about “nuclear sharing.” Another notable contribution was the observation that Taiwan’s security is Japan’s security. He also helpfully called for the United States to move away from “strategic ambiguity” toward a declarative policy on the defense of Taiwan. 

Most noticeable was Abe’s interpersonal skill and his use of the power of image. He understood persuasion and leadership. As the result of the 2016 U.S. presidential election became known, Abe was a “first mover.” With the aid of Japan’s embassy in the U.S., Shinzo Abe became the first foreign leader to visit President-Elect Trump while other leaders kept their distance. Even better, Abe brought a gift, a gold-plated driver, specifically a Honma Berras S-05 with a 9.5-degree loft. It is said to be particularly helpful to correct a slice. It was worth about $3,500 then. Abe clearly knew his new friend. He was also the first foreign leader to visit Mar-a-Lago. This bonding over golf created a relationship that was not equaled with any other leader. The relationship thus created benefited both nations very well. 

Today’s Japanese leadership comes from the same tree. Its solid leadership will be necessary, and likely soon challenged. So will we. We must maintain Abe’s legacy together.   

Lieutenant General Wallace “Chip” Gregson joined The Roosevelt Group as a Senior Advisor after over 30 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Prior to retirement, Chip served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. He also served as Commanding General of Marine Corps Forces Pacific and Marine Corps Forces Central Command, where he led and managed over 70,000 Marines and Sailors in the Middle East, Afghanistan, East Africa, Asia, and the United States.

Written By

Lieutenant General Wallace C. Gregson, Jr., is Senior Director, China, and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2005 with the rank of Lieutenant-General. He last served as the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific; Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific; and Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Bases, Pacific, headquartered at Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii.