Seoul, South Korea
For many in the Asia-Pacific, Shinzo Abe was prophetic in recognizing the challenge a rising China posed to the US-led system of political and military alliances.
And Japan’s former prime minister – killed by an assassin’s bullet on July 8 – arguably did more than any of his Western contemporaries to meet that challenge.
Abe, who served two separate terms and was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, will be remembered by many as the leader who finally lifted the country from the shadows of World War II.
He predicted that the rapid growth of China’s People’s Liberation Army – fueled by one of the fastest growing economies in the world – would upset the regional balance of power, and argued that Japan should, to Following this change, rethink its post-war, pacifist Constitution imposed by the United States.
In 2014, Abe’s government reinterpreted this constitution to allow the Japanese military to theoretically fight overseas. And he gave her the tools to do it, buying stealth fighters and building the first Japanese aircraft carriers since World War II to accommodate them.
But perhaps his greatest contribution to the defense of his country – and for many, to the security of the wider Asian region – lies not in military equipment, but in language; in his invention of the simple phrase: “a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
With those few words, Abe transformed the way many foreign policymakers talk about – and think about – Asia.
Today, to the chagrin of Chinese leaders, this phrase is everywhere. It is used as a mantra by the US military and is the vocabulary of choice for any aspiring Western diplomat.
So it may be hard to remember that before Abe, few people in these circles were talking about the “Indo-Pacific”.
Prior to 2007, Washington’s preference was to conceptualize Asia as that large part of the globe stretching from Australia to China to the United States – and to call it “Asia-Pacific”.
This concept had China at its center – anathema to Abe who, like many Japanese, feared that Beijing’s growing influence would mean his country could be bullied by a much larger neighbor.
Abe’s goal was to encourage the world to see Asia through a much broader lens – that of the “Indo-Pacific”, a concept spanning both the Indian and Pacific oceans he has first promoted in a 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament titled “Confluence of the Two Seas. »
This redesign of Asia’s borders did two things. First, it shifted the geographic focus to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea – conveniently focusing minds on a region of the world where Beijing has territorial disputes with a range of nations.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, it highlighted the only country in the world that could outweigh China by sheer size: India.
Abe recognized “the importance of India as a democratic balance for future Chinese hegemony” and “began to systematically court Indian leaders for mentorship,” wrote John Hemmings, of the East-West Center at Washington, in a 2020 assessment of Abe that coincided with the end of his second term as prime minister.
“Including a democratic India in Asia’s future was not just good geopolitics, it was good geoeconomics, because India’s population and democratic system balanced the equally large population and authoritarian system. from China.
Abe became a driving force behind the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which brought India into a partnership with Japan, the United States and Australia that was launched the same year as his speech “Confluence of the two seas”.
The partnership has its roots in relief efforts for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but gained an “ideological component” in a 2006 campaign speech by Abe, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. . It was then reborn in 2007 as a strategic forum with semi-regular summits, information exchanges and, above all, joint military exercises which were pushed back by China.
Months later, Abe outlined his vision for a “wider Asia…a huge network” spanning countries that share “core values” such as freedom and democracy, and common strategic interests.
This description seemed to leave little room for China, which has since felt threatened by the Quad, and whose Foreign Minister Wang Yi has openly accused the United States of trying to encircle China with an “Indo-Nato peaceful”.
When, for a moment, it appeared hostility from China could sabotage the Quad, which collapsed in 2008 following threats of economic retaliation from Beijing, Abe again played his hand.
According to Japan’s foreign ministry, Abe first outlined his vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” during a keynote speech in Kenya in 2016.
Its vision rested on three pillars: the promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade; the pursuit of economic prosperity; and a commitment to peace and stability.
The term acted “as a foil to the increasingly China-centric view of Asia’s future, while promoting openness and values to attract regional hedgers,” said Hemmings, of the East -West Center.
The year after Abe’s speech in Kenya, the Quad was reborn – and the Trump administration unveiled its own concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
By the time of Abe’s death, the Quad had grown considerably. Over the past two years, the four countries have held two joint naval exercises, organized around the mantra of promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Writing after Abe’s death, Robert Ward, Japan’s president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted how Abe had restructured his country’s foreign policy, “motivated by his early recognition of the threat to Japan and the ‘regional order of China’s rapid rise’.
As such, Ward wrote, it was “difficult to overstate the transformational significance of his legacy, both inside and outside of Japan”.
The extent of Abe’s influence is evident from the tributes that followed his death.
Among the statesmen who paid their respects was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who has called Abe a “dear friend” since meeting him in 2007, and declared last Saturday a day of national mourning in India for the former Japanese leader.
Tributes from the United States, China’s biggest rival and Japan’s biggest military ally, are also telling.
Under Abe, U.S.-Japan ties had reached a “new level,” said Tobias Harris, senior Asia fellow at the Center for American Progress, and that was reflected in the president’s order. Joe Biden that the American flags be lowered. in every public building across the country and in every federal facility around the world.
This was also reflected in the official White House tribute. Abe was “a staunch friend of the United States,” the White House said. “He has worked with U.S. presidents from both parties to deepen the alliance between our nations and advance a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
There is still this line, “a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The phrase has become ubiquitous in U.S. military policy and pronouncements, while in 2018 the Pentagon’s Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii changed its name to Indo-Pacific Command to recognize “the growing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans as America focuses on the West”.
In a speech titled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in Indonesia last December, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington would “work with our allies and partners to uphold the rules-based order we have built together over decades to ensure the region remains open and accessible.
Then, at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore last month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin used the term “rules-based order” or its variants eight times.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida used the term 19 times to explain Japan’s promotion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision that had “won broad support within the international community”.
This “broad support” is perhaps Abe’s most enduring legacy. A tribute, in its own way, to the vision Abe had alluded to eight years earlier in his own speech at the Shangri La Dialogue.
Telling his audience that Tokyo was ready to take the lead in making the region prosperous for all, Abe had called on all countries to respect international law so that future generations could “share this bounty”.
“If you imagine how vast the Pacific and Indian oceans are, our potential is just like the oceans,” Abe said. “Unlimited, right?”