Tokyo Report

The Mixed Legacy of Abe Shinzo’s ‘Panoramic’ Foreign Policy

Recent Features

Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

The Mixed Legacy of Abe Shinzo’s ‘Panoramic’ Foreign Policy

Abe’s state funeral is a farewell for his all-encompassing diplomatic approach as Japan transitions toward a more values-based foreign policy.

The Mixed Legacy of Abe Shinzo’s ‘Panoramic’ Foreign Policy

Then-Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo speaks to the press after a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, May 26, 2018.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The Japanese government will hold a state funeral on September 27 for former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who was assassinated during a campaign rally for the upper house election in July. This is the first state funeral for a former prime minister in 55 years. The only postwar precedent is the state funeral of former Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, who immensely contributed to the postwar reconstruction of Japan.

Considering that Abe was the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history and built an influential presence in world politics – the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) is one of his foreign policy legacies – Abe surely deserves a state funeral. Foreign leaders seem to agree; his funeral will be attended by guests from more than 218 states, regions, and organizations.

Abe was certainly the most recognized Japanese political leader in Japan’s modern history. He visited 80 countries and regions during his second term, from 2012 to 2020, a record for a Japanese prime minister. Abe described this proactive diplomatic posture as “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map” or diplomacy with panoramic views for short. According to Yachi Shotaro, who served as Abe’s first secretary general of the National Security Secretariat, this foreign policy initiative refers to multifaceted strategic diplomacy with the Japan-U.S. alliance at its core. To elaborate more, it is an initiative where Japan tries to establish reciprocal relations with as many countries as possible, even if they do not align with the fundamental values Japan upholds.

Abe’s emphasis on multifaceted diplomacy is reflected in the fact that he launched the concept of FOIP at the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) held in Kenya in 2016. Although Abe had concerns over China’s growing influence, he did not only focus on the Indo-Pacific. During his second premiership, he visited all regions from Africa to Latin America. This also meant that Abe did not hesitate to extend Japan’s presence in areas that were previously considered another country’s “backyard.” Abe was the first Japanese prime minister who visited the five Central Asian countries and signed infrastructure projects worth $30 billion with these countries in 2015.

Abe’s proactive diplomacy gave an impression to the world that Japan is a global player. He laid out the vision for the future of the Indo-Pacific region through the concept of FOIP and also contributed to the creation of Quad, which would serve as the primary vehicle for the realization of FOIP. Moreover, when world leaders were struggling to cope with U.S. President Donald Trump, Abe was the only leader who established a functioning and lasting relationship with him. Indeed, the G-7 during the Trump era might have collapsed without Abe.

But sometimes Abe took different approaches to the U.S. or other Western countries as part of his emphasis on panoramic diplomacy. The Abe administration maintained a good relationship with Iran and Abe visited Tehran in 2019 to de-escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf. This tendency was more prevalent in Southeast Asia. The Abe administration did not criticize democratic backsliding or human rights abuses in Cambodia and Thailand, and maintained amicable relationships when the EU sanctioned or condemned these countries.

However, diplomacy with panoramic views was not without its problems, and the consequences of these issues are more acutely felt in the era of intensifying great power competition and the erosion of the liberal international order.

On the web archive of the Prime Minister’s Office, there is a page dedicated to diplomacy with panoramic views. Among the major achievements the initiative achieved, the top two examples were summits with China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. And the summaries related to these two summit meetings are stunning, considering the situation today surrounding Ukraine and Taiwan. On China, the excerpt states that China and Japan “will move from competition to cooperation under international standards, not be a threat to each other, and develop a free and fair trade regime together. And on Russia, it states that “with Russia, we will deepen mutual trust and friendship among our peoples, resolve the territorial issue, and conclude a peace treaty.”

Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which was published in 2013 and has not been updated since then, also reflected this thinking. On China, the 2013 NSS states “Japan will strive to construct and enhance a Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests with China in all areas.” In a similar vein, on Russia, it states that “it is critical for Japan to advance cooperation with Russia in all areas, including security and energy, thereby enhancing bilateral relations as a whole, to ensure its security.” To put it simply, at a time when Russia and China were already accelerating joint efforts to undermine the current liberal international order, Abe’s multifaceted diplomacy essentially appeased them and gave them greater legitimacy.

In 2017, Nikai Toshihiro, who was the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), handed a personal letter from Abe to Xi Jinping. The personal letter noted that Japan would be willing to cooperate with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Furthermore, despite the list of allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the Abe administration was trying to invite Xi to Japan as a state guest and never actually canceled such a plan (although the pandemic intervened to forestall the visit).

But Abe’s diplomacy faced more serious issues due to its approach to Russia. Abe was interested in advancing the stalled territorial negotiations on the Russia-administered Southern Kurils, which Japan claims as the Northern Territories. Abe met Putin 27 times during his second premiership but there has been no progress in the negotiations. In 2016, after Russia’s forceful takeover of Crimea, the Abe administration provided a generous economic cooperation package in the hope that it would facilitate talks, but Russia simply took advantage of it. It is reported that approximately $200 million was provided as de facto economic support for Russia when it was suffering from severe economic sanctions by the West.

Like almost all great political leaders, Abe left both positive and negative legacies for Japan’s foreign policy. In contrast to Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral, the Japanese government sent an invitation to almost all countries, including regimes rejected by the West like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. There would be nothing wrong with this invitation list if the Japanese government was still following the practice of diplomacy with panoramic views. However, in reality, the situation surrounding Japan has changed. Given the imminent threat from China near Japanese islands in its southwest region and Russia’s increasing military provocation around Japan, it is reasonable to argue that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow” as Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said at the NATO Summit this year.

Kishida generally has carried the mantle of Abe’s foreign policy doctrine, but the new prime minister was clear from the beginning that he would further emphasize human rights or values-based diplomacy. Kishida created a position of Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on Human Rights Issues with human rights abuses in China in mind. Kishida also eventually decided to join other Western countries in the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

And that was before the invasion of Ukraine, which changed the priorities of Japan’s foreign policy. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Japan has been taking unprecedented actions against Moscow. Japan joined coordinated economic and financial sanctions against Russia and Japan with other G-7 members, including sanctions against Russia’s central bank and suspension of Most Favored Nation treatment. Furthermore, Japan sent bulletproof vests to Ukraine in addition to winter clothes, tents, cameras, sanitary materials, emergency rations, and generators. This was significant because, in the Japanese export control regime, bulletproof vests are classified as defense equipment and need to go through special approval procedures for transfers. And most recently, Japan joined other G-7 members in issuing a joint statement condemning China’s military threats and economic coercion against Taiwan even at the expense of an originally scheduled foreign ministers’ meeting.

Japanese policymakers now realize that maintaining a strategic relationship with every state is becoming extremely challenging. When China and Russia are actively seeking to disrupt and challenge the norms of existing international order, and those who are depending on them such as Myanmar and Syria are committing gross human rights violations against their citizens, Japan cannot commit itself to multifaceted diplomacy as envisioned by the idea of diplomacy with panoramic views. What Japan needs now is ever-closer alignment with like-minded partners who share the same values and interests. In that sense, Abe’s state funeral is a farewell for his all-encompassing diplomatic approach.