Shinzo Abe

Japanese then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for the 20th ASEAN Japan Summit on the sideline of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. World leaders are in the Philippines' capital for two days of summits. (Photo: Ezra ACAYAN / AFP / POOL)

Shinzo Abe’s Legacy: The Centrality of Southeast Asia


Shinzo Abe learned that Japan’s security did not lie in its military, but Japan’s good citizenship in a free-trading rules-based order. Southeast Asia was central to his pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Following his untimely demise, Southeast Asian leaders and ordinary folk have offered heartfelt condolences and tributes to Shinzo Abe’s statesmanship and tireless personal efforts to bring Japan and the region closer together to weather increasingly turbulent times.

Abe’s diplomacy was driven by his vision of Japan as a peace-oriented leader in the international community. He did regret Japan’s unusually heavy dependence on others to protect its security and global interests. But he also realised that Japan’s post-World War Two miracle of economic and political development rested on a US-Japan security treaty that benefitted not just Japan, but others across Asia. The signal lesson that Abe and his generation learned is that the key to Japan’s security and prosperity is not a powerful Japanese military, but instead Japan’s good citizenship in a well-functioning, free-trading rules-based order.

But when Abe became prime minister in 2012 for a second time, the rules-based order in Asia was in trouble. North Korea was developing nuclear missiles. A militarising China bullied the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea as well as Japan in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. These altercations signaled that China wanted the regional status quo to change in line with the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party’s new leader Xi Jinping. But the U.S. did not appear to get the message. Despite rhetoric that announced a “strategic pivot to Asia”, the Obama administration paid more attention to reassuring China than it did to its Philippine and Japanese allies.

Abe led his Liberal Democratic Party to election victory at the time of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands crisis in September 2012. Despite the notion that he was a far-right militarist bent on resurrecting prewar Japanese militarism, Abe dedicated himself to the realisation of a cosmopolitan and democratic values-based vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific community.

Abe’s vision of an Indo-Pacific partnership to meld the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions into a single cosmopolitan community was presented for the first time in his speech before India’s Parliament in 2007. But many forget that when he returned to office five years later, Abe’s effort to realise his Indo-Pacific vision began with Southeast Asia — the fulcrum of any Indo-Pacific construct. Upon taking office on 26 December 2012, Abe ordered preparations for a special commemorative Japan-ASEAN summit to be held at the earliest possible date. Three weeks later, his first official overseas trip took him to Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia to put in practice his “Five Principles of Japan’s ASEAN Diplomacy” (such as the international rule of law, open and freely accessed international sealanes, and free trade principles). Within a year of taking office, he had visited every ASEAN member as proof of his sincerity.

Abe the statesman recognised that with a region put at risk by a distracted U.S. and a resurgent China, the time for Japan’s constructive regional leadership had arrived.

Abe hosted the commemorative Japan-ASEAN summit in December 2013, only weeks after China unilaterally declared an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea, a move that raised the possibility of a similar action in the South China Sea. Thus, maritime security and open East-West connectivity through Southeast Asia could no longer be taken for granted as a rising China acted to weaken and displace US strategic primacy in order to make way for a rejuvenated Sino-centric order in Asia.

The commemorative Japan-ASEAN summit issued a joint statement that called for maritime security with freedom of navigation and overflight in Asia. Accompanying this was a two-year, two trillion yen (US$14.5 billion) Official Development Assistance (ODA) package. This would finance “quality infrastructure”, provide civilian maritime patrol vessels as well as new types of coast guard and naval cooperation with ASEAN partners. The aim was to enhance their capacity and strategic agency, which enhanced regional maritime security. According to Abe, ASEAN leaders agreed that in these ways, “Japan will play an even more proactive role in maintaining regional peace and stability than in the past.” At the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, Abe followed up by pledging that, “Japan will offer its utmost support for efforts by ASEAN member countries to ensure the security of the seas and skies and rigorously maintain freedom of navigation and overflight.”

Abe the statesman recognised that with a region put at risk by a distracted U.S. and a resurgent China, the time for Japan’s constructive regional leadership had arrived. Abe the diplomatist, who as a young man served as secretary to his father, foreign minister Shintaro Abe, reached out first to ASEAN and other Indo-Pacific leaders. But to lead he needed new policy tools, which required new legislation that a conservative Japanese public and a stodgy bureaucracy were inclined to resist.

Abe the politician demonstrated the art of achieving the possible by reinterpreting, rather than revising, Japan’s postwar foreign and security policy principles in order to have the tools in hand to build Indo-Pacific partnerships. He introduced a National Security Strategy that called for “seamless security”, reinterpreted Article 9 of the Constitution and pushed through Diet legislation to this effect to enable security partnerships with the U.S. and other countries in the South China Sea and across the Indo-Pacific region. The export control law was revised to permit weapons exports including fighter jets. ODA was restructured to allow Japan to build cooperative security partnerships using aid for governance and rule of law promotion and for financing dual-use equipment as well as military cooperation for civilian purposes. As a result, Japan’s ODA enabled the transfer of Japanese radar technologies, coast guard patrol vessels, and surveillance planes to Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea.

Abe used his “proactive pacifism” diplomacy and these new cooperation tools to strengthen the capacity and strategic agency of Southeast Asian partners. This cooperative partnership-building in support of the rules-based order was Abe’s cosmopolitan and peace-oriented answer to the rise of authoritarian “civilization-states” that claimed a “historical” right to rule neighbouring peoples and geographies. He used low-key official visits and active attendance at the annual ASEAN-Japan leaders’ meetings to move this strategy forward in Southeast Asia, country-by-country and project-by-project in dialogue with ASEAN counterparts. Abe left a legacy that strengthens the resilience of ASEAN members both individually and collectively. In essence, Abe’s approach and policies paid tribute to the centrality of Southeast Asia in a larger Indo-Pacific construct.


David Arase was Visiting Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.