Shinzo Abe Strikes Back

Well-wishers wave Japanese national flags as Japan's Emperor Akihito (not pictured) appears on a balcony of the Imperial Palace during a public appearance for New Year celebrations at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hana
December 24, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: JapanShinzo AbeChinaXi JinpingSouth China Sea

Shinzo Abe Strikes Back

Japan's prime minister has paved a policy path that challenges China's grab for power in the Indo-Pacific region. What happens next?

Two months later, Abe reiterated the four countries’ shared democratic values during the visit of then Australia Prime Minister John Howard. By April, Abe was in Washington to press a similar argument, hoping to convince the Bush administration to go beyond the trilateral alliance arrangements with Japan and Australia alone, and bring India into the fold.

Perhaps even more than Australia’s then reticence to join any informal coalition of constrainment against China, which was solidified by Kevin Rudd’s rise to power, as well as India’s ambivalence, given its sensitivity to maintaining normalized ties with Beijing, it was Abe’s resignation in late 2007 that killed the Quad 1.0.

When he got his second chance at power, Abe didn’t waste a second to promote his vision of “constrainment” against China. This constrainment was pursued through greater maritime security cooperation, diplomatic coordination, and joint development projects among major global democracies, including France and Britain, which also have Indo-Pacific territories.

He oversaw the upgrading of U.S.-Japan alliance to revised bilateral Defense Guidelines in 2015, giving greater operational strength and legal flexibility for joint military activities across the Indo-Pacific. Three years later, the two allies conducted Keen Sword 19 war games, the “largest and most complex” of its kind, involving close to sixty thousand troops, dozens of warships, and hundreds of aircrafts.

Months earlier, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s largest vessel, the helicopter carrier Kaga, held first ever bilateral exercises with the U.S. Navy’s Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group, in the South China Sea. It was arguably the first major joint freedom of navigation operations in the area. Over the succeeding weeks, Japanese warships and helicopter carrier visited ports in strategically located Indo-Pacific nations, namely the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and India.

Abe has also been countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative through setting up the alternative multibillion Connectivity Initiative, worth as high as $110 billion, while supporting the newly-created Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative. Abe’s Connectivity Initiative aims to counter China’s revisionist maritime policies, intrusive influence operations across regional democracies, and predatory economics.

The Trump administration’s call for a “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific region is, in many ways, a reiteration, if not a repacked version, of Abe’s earlier thoughts on the emerging global order—with Asia at its very center. One could even argue that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific is the other name for the Abe doctrine, paving the way for the creation of a Quad 2.0, with a greater sense of purpose, internal coherence, and urgency, as China begins to redraw the maritime heartland of Asia. With Abe being the ultimate anchor of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the question is whether his successors in Japan will pick up where he left once his term comes to an end. Another interesting question is whether Tokyo has the economic wherewithal to support his vision for the foreseeable future.

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University. He previously served as a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives.

Image: Reuters