The Legacy of Shinzo Abe

It has been more than a year since Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned due to illness. His successor, Yoshihide Suga, has come and gone. But the institutional innovations spearheaded by Abe, namely the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, look likely to shape Asia’s geopolitical landscape for a long time to come.

Abe worked tirelessly to deliver the CPTPP, after Donald Trump effectively torpedoed its predecessor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, by withdrawing the United States. The deal Abe revived currently includes 11 Asia-Pacific countries, with a combined economic output of nearly $14 trillion.

In addition, the ranks of the CPTPP are expected to grow. The UK formally applied to join the pact last February. In September, China did the same, in an apparent effort to underscore its commitment to free trade and further distance itself from the United States. Taiwan filed its request six days later.

If the UK joins the CPTPP, as now seems likely, it will add $2.7 trillion – or around 20% – to the bloc’s total economic output.

The processing of Chinese and Taiwanese applications will be more delicate. Taiwan is technically better qualified to join than China, but the decision to admit Taiwan and reject China could stoke tensions and even spark conflict – a prospect CPTPP signatories would prefer to avoid.

But, from a strategic point of view, it is vis-à-vis the United States that the CPTPP will make the greatest difference. While Trump is out of the White House, the United States has failed to shake Trump’s protectionism and President Joe Biden has failed to find the political courage to join the pact. Yet the CPTPP is integral to the success of US efforts to counter China’s economic influence in Asia. Eventually, Biden should recognize it. When he does, he will have Abe to thank for the fact that there is a free trade agreement that the United States can join.

Abe’s legacy was even more consistent and far-sighted in the area of ​​security. He proposed the Quad as a regional security forum – comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States – in 2007, during his brief first stint as Japanese prime minister. Although the Quad was largely dormant for the next decade, the parties agreed to reinvigorate it in 2017, thanks in large part to Abe’s insistence and China’s growing assertiveness.

The Biden administration now sees the Quad as an essential part of its strategy to control China. In September, the group’s leaders gathered for an in-person summit at the White House — a gathering that future historians will likely point to as a pivotal moment in the Sino-US strategic rivalry.

But the Quad represents much more than diplomatic symbolism. It is also strengthening its joint military capabilities. Last year, it held its first joint naval exercise, Malabar 2020, off the southeast coast of India. He followed in August with Malabar 2021, held off Guam.

Given his leadership in the creation of the CPTPP and the Quad, one would assume that Abe was a shameless Chinese hawk determined to stem it. But this assessment overlooks the third pillar of Abe’s geopolitical strategy: direct engagement with China.

In fact, even though he actively promoted the CPTPP and the Quad, Abe ensured that Japan’s relationship with China remained stable and cooperative. He visited Beijing in October 2018 and invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan in April 2020, although that plan was derailed by the covid-19 pandemic.

Ultimately, Abe was a supreme realist when it came to China. He knew that bilateral engagement was key to defusing tensions and mitigating risks. But to ensure peace and prosperity in Japan, such a commitment had to be complemented by strong economic and security alliances with other major powers, especially the United States and India. Only then would China take Japan seriously, treating it as an equal partner in East Asia.

Today, the third pillar of Abe’s China strategy appears to have collapsed. The Biden administration convinced Suga to bolster Japan’s security commitments in a way Chinese leaders view as hostile. The Sino-Japanese relationship quickly hit a new low.

Fortunately, Suga’s successor, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, may have more leeway. Thanks to Abe’s strategic foresight, Japan is now in a stronger geopolitical position than China. Indeed, China needs Japan more than Japan needs China, because China must maintain a viable relationship with Japan if it is to thwart the US strategy of economic decoupling and security containment. So, if tensions begin to ease, China may well be the one to reach out to Japan in a bid to mend relations. Such an initiative would improve the situation for all of Asia. ©2021/UNION PROJECT (www.project-syndicate.org)

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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