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Leaving a complex legacy for China-Japan relations, the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo marks the beginning of a more volatile and unpredictable chapter of the bilateral relationship

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Oct.1

Former Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo delivers a speech at a reception for the 40th anniversary for the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the People’s Republic of China and Japan, Beijing, October 25, 2018

On July 8, former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was gunned down during a speech to support a legislative candidate he endorsed. Japan’s longest-serving post-war leader and a towering political figure, Abe left an indelible mark on the country’s foreign and economic policies. His assassination sent shock waves not only through Japan but across the globe.  

A controversial figure, mostly for his hawkish stance on foreign policy and staunch commitment to revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, many in Japan considered Abe the most divisive leader in the country’s recent history. The Japanese government’s plan to hold a State funeral for him in September was met swiftly with vehement opposition. 

In the US, Abe is most remembered as a staunch US ally who bound Tokyo closer to Washington and substantially strengthened their military alliance. Washington ordered US flags to be flown at half-mast at all public and military buildings for two days to honor him. 

Right-Wing Background 
But in China, Abe has long had a poor reputation, primarily for his right-wing politics and personal ties to Japan’s imperial past. Coming from one of Japan’s most powerful political clans, Abe’s maternal grandfather Kishi Nobusuke was an ardent nationalist who served in Japan’s militarist government during World War II, and as a senior official in the puppet government of Manchuria in occupied Northeast China. US occupation forces captured Kishi, and following Japan’s surrender charged him with war crimes. However, he was released in 1948 as the US shifted its focus from punishing Japan’s militarists to establishing the country as an anti-communist ally. 
Kishi later rejoined politics and played a major role in the creation of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which over the next 70 years would rule Japan almost uninterrupted. He became prime minister in 1957. He resented Japan’s pacifist constitution put in place by the US occupying forces, which officially renounces war as a sovereign right of Japan. It was under Kishi’s tenure that Japan struck the US-Japan Security Treaty with Washington in 1960, a highly unpopular move at the time. Kishi resigned amid massive public protests.  

With Kishi’s support, Abe Shinzo’s father, Abe Shintaro also became an influential politician, serving as foreign minister during the 1980s. But it would be Abe Shinzo who would return the family to the top seat, becoming LDP leader and prime minister in 2006 for his first term.  

Throughout his political career, Abe made clear he shared his grandfather and father’s ambitions to revise Japan’s constitution, particularly the pacifist Article 9, to make Japan what he called a “normal country.” 
Like many of Japan’s other conservative politicians, Abe had his own share of historical revisionism. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are worshiped, in 2013 and 2020. He also backed school textbooks that glossed over Japan’s wartime atrocities, including the forcing of hundreds of thousands of captured Chinese, Korean and European women to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops.  

Although Abe was unable to gain enough political support to achieve his long-cherished dream of revising the constitution, he made strides in strengthening Japan’s military alliance with the US. He created Japan’s National Security Council in 2013, passed major legislation in 2015 that allowed Japan to send troops overseas, and greatly expanded what Japan could do militarily in support of the US. Many analysts believe this has partially allowed the Japanese government to sidestep constitutional constraints. 

Abe was also the architect of regional initiatives that aim to contain China. It was in Abe’s first administration in 2007 that he raised the idea of the “Arc of Democracy,” which the US later appropriated and developed into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). Bringing together the US, Japan, India and Australia, the scheme has increasingly become openly anti-China in the past couple of years.  

Abe also strongly supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade initiative launched under the Obama administration, which was widely considered as a scheme to exclude China. After the Trump administration withdrew from the treaty, Japan, with the remaining TPP members, transformed it into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which went into force in December 2018. Since then, Japan has actively been trying to persuade Washington to rejoin the pact.

Pragmatic Leader 
But Abe’s reputation is not entirely negative in China. Some credit him with stabilizing Sino-Japanese relations amid the deteriorating relationship between China and the US. 

When Abe assumed his second term as Japan’s prime minister in December 2012, China-Japan relations were at a low point: territorial disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea had rekindled after Japan “nationalized” the islands under the rule of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in September 2012.  

During the Abe administration, Japan reached a “four-point consensus” on the issue with China in November 2014, with both sides agreeing to continue to develop a “mutually beneficial relationship.” A few days later, Abe visited Beijing to attend the 22nd APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting and held his first summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.  

During the Trump administration, Abe chose not to join Washington’s trade war against China. Instead, he visited China again in 2018, agreeing to explore the possibility of launching economic cooperation projects in third countries with China. Following Xi’s visit to Japan to attend the G20 Osaka Summit in 2019, Abe invited Xi to visit Japan again in 2020, though the plan was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Under Abe’s iconic Abenomics policy, Japan turned to tourism for economic growth and substantially relaxed border entry requirements for Chinese tourists. With 9.6 million Chinese people visiting Japan in 2019, contributing 1.8 trillion yen (US$13.3b) to the Japanese economy, the move improved people-to-people communication between the two countries. Japan also joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that went into effect this year, whose members include China, the 10 ASEAN countries, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. In 2017, Abe even endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), saying Japan is ready to “extend cooperation” with China on the BRI.  

To many, the apparent paradox of Abe’s policies, both toward China and in other areas, made him a divisive and contradictory figure. But according to Zhang Yong, associate fellow with the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, coming from an elite political family and having waded through Japan’s complex clan politics, Abe was a master of the art of ambiguity and selfconcealment, values that are deeply rooted in Japan’s political culture. “He was both an idealist and a pragmatist,” Zhang said.  

This may be best reflected in Abe’s handling of his relationship with former US president Donald Trump. Despite his concerns over Trump’s “America First” agenda that cast doubt on the value of Washington’s alliance with Tokyo, Abe hid any anguish he might have and strove to build a personal relationship with Trump, to the extent that he recommended Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for wooing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which went against Abe’s own advice. 

 “Everything he did can be explained to serve Japan’s national interests,” Zhang said. “If you perceive his policies from this perspective, there is not much of a paradox.”  

According to Hosoya Yuichi, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo, the apparent policy paradox reflects Abe’s efforts to strike a balance between the US and China.  

“Abe had long been a representative of the more conservative faction within the LDP, which favors a tougher position against China,” Hosoya said. “But Abe fully understood that China is Japan’s top trade partner and plays a significant role in the region, and his top priority is Japan’s national interests.”  

Abe also tried to balance the different factions within the LDP, Hosoya added. During his tenure, Nikai Toshihiro, dubbed the LDP’s most “pro-China” politician, became the party’s secretary general, and Kishida Fumio, Japan’s current prime minister who was widely considered a liberal, served as foreign minister in his cabinet. 

US forces in Japan and soldiers from the Japan Self-Defense Force hold a joint military drill, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, December 8, 2021

Rearmament Push 
As Abe’s assassination boosted support for his party, the LDP scored a landslide victory in Japan’s Upper House election on July 10, winning more than half of the 125 seats up for grabs. This helped the proconstitutional amendment forces, including the LDP and three other parties, retain the two-thirds majority in Japan’s parliaments needed to push for revising the constitution, something Abe never achieved.  

Speaking after the election, Kishida vowed he would honor Abe’s legacy by taking up his cause of revising the supreme law. As Kishida will not have to face an election until 2025, there is a genuine opportunity for his government to realize the dream of many right-wing politicians in Japan.  

Besides a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, the Kishida administration also needs a simple majority in a national referendum. A survey conducted after the assassination of Abe by the Asahi Shimbun showed that 51 percent of Japanese voters supported revising the pacifist Article 9, while 33 percent were opposed, though the issue was cited the least important among the top five issues the Kishida government should address. Moreover, there are disagreements among the pro-revision parties on how to change the document, especially Article 9.  

According to Wang Xinsheng, a professor of history at Peking University, Kishida’s top priority now is to consolidate his leadership, not to push for constitutional revision. But it seems inevitable that Japan will eventually revise its pacifist constitution probably within three years, Wang said. 

The Kishida administration has already ramped up its military spending. On July 16, Japanese newspaper The Nikkei reported Japan will not set a ceiling on defense spending in the next annual budget, in keeping with the pledge made by the LDP in April to not only increase Japan’s defense spending to 2 percent of Japan’s GDP, but also to seek “enemy-base strike capability.” Japan’s annual defense spending has been limited to up to one percent of its annual GDP for decades.  

Many are concerned that as Japan rearms itself, it may slide back into militarism, especially as senior politicians in the LDP have become bolder in reinterpreting WWII history.  

Speaking about the Russia-Ukraine war on May 11, Aso Taro, Japan’s former prime minister and vice-president of the LDP, said that Japan was a victim of the “invasion” of the Soviet Union during WWII, rhetoric later echoed by Ishiba Shigeru, former secretarygeneral of the LDP, who stressed that Japan should never forget the history of the Soviet Union “invading Japan.”  

On August 4, Eto Seishiro, a veteran House member who previously served as the vice-speaker of Japan’s House of Representatives, angered South Korea after saying during an LDP meeting that it is like a “brother country,” though Japan should be the “older brother,” as it once colonized the country. 

Soldiers from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force visit a museum in Palembang, Indonesia during the Super Garuda Shield joint military drill conducted by 14 nations, including the US and Indonesia, August 4, 2022. This was the first time Japan participated in the drill

Japan Self-Defense Forces, US Marines and French soldiers conduct a joint military drill for the first time, Kirishima Training Area, Japan, May 15, 2021

Taiwan Question 
What concerns China most is that Japan has taken a more active role regarding the Taiwan question.  

Abe himself, who stepped down as prime minister due to health reasons in 2020 but remained a member of parliament, said in November 2021 that “a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance.” 

 In an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times in April, Abe explicitly called on the US to clarify that it will defend Taiwan if China tries to reunify the island by force.  

In April 2021, Suga Yoshihide, Abe’s immediate successor as prime minister, included a clause on Taiwan in a joint statement with US President Joe Biden, the first time in five decades. In May 2022, the joint leaders’ statement between Kishida, who succeeded Suga, and Biden again addressed the Taiwan question.  

Japan’s highlighting of the Taiwan question is particularly sensitive to China, as it was Japan who defeated China in the First SinoJapanese War in 1894 and occupied Taiwan for 50 years. The island was returned to China in 1945 after Japan’s defeat and surrender in WWII. A few years later in 1949, after losing China’s civil war, China’s Nationalist government left the mainland and fled to the island, which is still considered by China as part of its sovereign territory.  

As a result, the relationship between China and Japan has rapidly deteriorated in the past few months. When Japan highlighted threats posed by China in its annual defense white paper released on July 22, China’s Foreign Ministry answered with strong criticism, accusing Japan of “interfering in China’s internal affairs on the Taiwan question” and “seeking excuses for its military expansion by playing up security threats from its neighbors.”  

After US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to China’s Taiwan on August 2 triggered a strong reaction from China, which launched massive military drills around the island, Japan joined the G7 in issuing a joint statement accusing China of unilaterally changing the status quo by force in the region. China reacted by calling off a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of ASEAN events held in Cambodia.  

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, warned in a press conference on August 5 that Japan is “historically responsible for its serious wrongdoing on the Taiwan question,” and is in no position to make “unwarranted remarks” on issues related to the Taiwan question.  

As tensions still run high in the Taiwan Strait, the uneasy peace and cooperation between China and Japan in the Abe era has nearly ended. As Japan increases military spending and consolidates its military ties with the US, the China-Japan relationship may have entered a more volatile and unpredictable post-Abe era.