Abe Shinzo: Australia Has Lost Its ‘Best Friend’ in Asia

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Abe Shinzo: Australia Has Lost Its ‘Best Friend’ in Asia

Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to place a priority on ties with Canberra.

Abe Shinzo: Australia Has Lost Its ‘Best Friend’ in Asia
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has sent shockwaves around the world. Abe’s term as prime minister ended in August 2020, but he remained leader of the largest faction in the LDP and a “kingmaker” within the party.

Aside from his immense stature in domestic politics, Abe placed great emphasis on diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, during his second term in office, from 2012-2020, Abe made 81 diplomatic trips and visited as many as 176 countries and regions.

From an Australian perspective, Abe has been a crucial player in the extraordinary close bilateral relationship between Australia and Japan. The condolences, disbelief, and sorrow expressed by new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and former prime ministers from John Howard to Scott Morrison about Abe’s sudden death are not merely polite platitudes. Abe’s long tenure as prime minister meant he gave stability and continuity to bilateral military and economic upgrades, at a time when Australia had a revolving door of prime ministers. Significant multilateral initiatives crucial to both Japan and Australia such as the Quad and the Trans-Pacific Partnership were also driven by Abe.

His impact was extraordinary. Upon Abe’s resignation as prime minister on August 28, 2020, for example, then-Australian Prime Minister Morrison tweeted that Abe was a friend and a “mentor.”

Prior to becoming prime minister in 2006 Abe published “Towards a Beautiful Country” (Utsukushii Kuni e), which advocated strengthening security cooperation with the United States, Australia, and India. That concept became the genesis of the formation of the Quad. For Abe, the explicit focus on Australia as a high-priority country (making him the first Japanese prime minister to do so) had a personal connection. His revered paternal grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Australia in 1957. During his stay, Kishi laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial expressing regret for the Japanese role in the Pacific War and addressed the lower house of Australia’s Parliament. Kishi also signed off on the 1957 Agreement on Commerce that became the cornerstone for bilateral post-war reconciliation and the core foundation of the post-war Australia-Japan relationship.

Abe strongly desired to emulate his grandfather. During his first brief stint in office, Abe signed off on the historic Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (JDSC) with then-Australian Prime Minister John Howard in March 2007. Abe also became the first Japanese prime minister to address both houses of the Australian Parliament on July 8, 2014. He also sought to strengthen the bilateral strategic partnership by the creation of the controversial Peace and Security Legislation enacted in 2015 with a view to enabling Japan to exercise the partial right of collective self-defense. Notably, the legislation allows Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to defend Australia in the event of a survival-threatening situation.

On the economic front Abe and Howard began negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) or the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in December 2006. After Abe returned to power in December 2012, he pursued the FTA goal with Australia with renewed vigor and signed off on the FTA/EPA with Tony Abbott in September 2014. The JDSC and subsequent security upgrades and the FTA/EPA were the missing pieces in bilateral ties. These advances have led to more updates and even stronger connections between already well-established commercial interest groups, as well as powerful alignment between security communities in Tokyo and Canberra.

The most problematic areas for Australia were Abe’s desire to amend Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, whaling, and the submarine saga. Of these issues, the issue over Article 9 is the most complex.

Successive Australian prime ministers since Bob Hawke have supported Japan’s incremental enhancement of its SDF and greater military role within the U.S.-led security framework. There is less support, however, for an amendment of Article 9 due to its potential to provoke hostile responses from China and South Korea and resurrect residual war-related antagonism in the Asia-Pacific more generally. As Australian and Japanese security communities have become closer in recent years, however, concerns about Article Nine have diminished. Abe’s minimal approach to any possible amendment has also reduced concerns in the region.

Whaling has been a perennial thorn in relations. The issue has been a source of irritation and indeed serious tension when Rudd took Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling in the Antarctic Ocean in 2011 and subsequently had the case upheld. Nonetheless the whaling issue has been largely managed.

The decision by the government of Malcolm Turnbull to select a French company to produce Australia’s next generation of submarines over Japanese tenders in 2016 highlighted the limitations of networks and friendships. Japanese negotiators were genuinely surprised at the Australian decision. It was assumed that Japan’s bid was a “done deal” based on the close friendship between Abe and Tony Abbott. The leadership change (from Abbott to Turnbull) and strict adherence to a tender process that did not favor Japanese interests came as a rude shock to Japanese supporters of Australia and became a source of serious tension for the following 12 months. Given the dramatic ditching of the French tender for a U.K./U.S. nuclear-powered submarine in September 2020, however, the loss of the tender may well have been of some relief to the Japanese in the end.

Overall, however, the bilateral relationship has been relatively smooth, and Abe expertly developed his political and personal relationships with his Australian counterparts from Howard to Morrison. His personal friendships with consecutive Australian leaders in themselves are his legacy as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister who proactively pursued a “special strategic partnership” with Australia in the age of the Indo-Pacific. As Abbott put it, Abe will be always remembered as Australia’s “best friend in Asia.”

In terms of Japanese security and Japan-Australia relations, Abe was vocal on defense policymaking and advocated “nuclear sharing” due to the heightened geopolitical security threat since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has assured the public that his administration would not adopt the policy of nuclear armament, Abe’s argument was very persuasive and influential within the LDP.

Abe’s death, however, and a strong showing at the upper house election on Sunday has given Kishida a strong mandate to pursue his own policies. Most likely this will lead to a cabinet reshuffle (to remove pro-Abe hawks), allowing the Kishida government to pursue nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of the Labor Party also supports an anti-nuke policy. In this context, both Japan and Australia as well as the Biden administration have to opportunity to work together toward a world without nuclear weapons at the 2023 G-7 Hiroshima Summit.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Interpreter.