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Shinzo Abe's legacy in regional security

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

By Julian Ryall

Tokyo—Shinzo Abe, the former Japan prime minister who was assassinated on July 8, will be remembered at home and abroad for many policies that he championed, notably sweeping domestic economic reforms and raising Japan’s profile on the world stage.

His most notable achievement, however, was reforming the defense and security architecture in Asia-Pacific as the threats to Japan and the wider region from an aggressively expansionist China and a nuclear-armed and unpredictable North Korea worsened.

Unswerving in his commitment to the alliance with the U.S. throughout his two spells as prime minister, initially for a year until September 2007 and then again from 2012 to late 2020, Abe was portrayed by political rivals at home and abroad as a hawk, but did nothing to play down that perception of his policies.

Even after he had stepped down as prime minister, he was forcing the nation’s leadership to address some unpalatable truths about the dangers surrounding Japan.

While the question of Japan developing and deploying its own nuclear weapons has been a deep undercurrent in the nation’s security discussions, it rose to the surface in March when Abe proposed that Tokyo open discussions with the U.S. on a nuclear sharing agreement, similar to the way in which non-nuclear members of NATO are able to rely on the organization’s nuclear-capable states.

Speaking on a television program, Abe said, “It is necessary to understand how the world’s security is maintained. We should not put a taboo on discussions about the reality that we face.”

Those views were met with immediate resistance from the incumbent prime minister, Fumio Kishida, who told the National Diet the very next day that it would be “unacceptable” for Japan to pursue an arrangement to share nuclear weapons.

But it caught the attention of politicians elsewhere. Ahn Cheol-soo, a candidate for the centrist People’s Party in the South Korean presidential election in March, said his nation also needed a nuclear sharing agreement with the U.S. to guarantee its security. That includes access to nuclear weapons presently stored on U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa in the event of a military crisis breaking out on the peninsula, he added.

Abe’s conviction of the need for a stronger national defense is a legacy of his political upbringing. His grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, the economic master of occupied China and Manchuko, the puppet state set up by Tokyo in north-east China years before World War II. During the conflict, he served as vice minister of munitions under Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

With Japan’s defeat, he was detained as a suspected Class-A war criminal for his role in the war, but escaped prosecution and helped in setting up the LDP in 1955. Kishi served as prime minister for three years from 1957.

Abe’s own father, Shintaro Abe, volunteered as a kamikaze pilot but Japan surrendered before he completed his training.

Shinzo Abe was first elected to the National Diet in 1993, from the family’s safe seat in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He never made any secret of his desire to rewrite sections of the constitution, which was enacted in May 1947. Like many conservatives, he believed that the constitution was imposed upon a cowed Japan by the vengeful allies and, as time went by, the changing geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific region meant that it needed to be updated.

Article 9 states that Japan renounces war as a sovereign right and declares that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” The result of this is that Japan has what it terms “self-defense forces.” Abe was among those who proposed altering the wording to state that Japan has the right to have a military force and should also be able to protect its allies.

Abe said on several occasions that he hoped that Japan could become a “normal nation” that was able to play a larger role on the world stage, although that usually triggered angry outbursts from China and both North and South Korea. Pyongyang, in particular, insisted that Abe had ambitions to rebuild Japan’s Asian empire.

As part of his efforts to improve Japan’s defense capabilities and live up to the U.S. pressure for the nation to assume more responsibility for its own security, Abe increased defense spending and set the wheels in motion to transition the nation’s military strategy.

From a powerful ground force presence in Hokkaido during the Cold War to deter any Russian invasion of the northernmost island in the archipelago, Abe oversaw the switch in emphasis to naval and airborne units that would be focused on the scattered islands of Okinawa Prefecture, in the far south.

These units are tasked with deterring efforts by China to take control of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which are sovereign Japanese territory but have been claimed by Beijing since significant deposits of raw materials were discovered beneath the seabed in the 1970s.

Okinawa was also the site of one of the biggest domestic disputes for Abe, with local residents of the prefecture constantly at loggerheads with the administration in Tokyo over the large U.S. military presence.

The prefecture accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land area but is home to fully 62 percent of all the U.S. military bases in Japan, some 25,000 U.S. troops.

Abe was a firm supporter of the plan to close the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, in central Okinawa, and to relocate thousands of personnel to a new camp in the north of the prefecture and to other facilities in the region.

A large number of troops and dependents are due to be relocated to Guam, although local political wrangling in Okinawa has delayed the construction of Camp Schwab, the replacement facility, and the closure of Futenma. Progress is being made, however, and the departure of many U.S. troops will be seen as a key legacy of Abe’s time in power.

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