Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated on Friday in the city of Nara (near Osaka, Japan) while giving a campaign speech, was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and arguably America’s most important political ally in the post-Cold War world. After serving as Japan’s leader from 2006-2007 and from 2012-2020, Abe resigned from his office in August 2020 for health reasons. As the United States under President Donald Trump began to focus on the Indo-Pacific and the geopolitical challenge of China, Abe was our staunchest ally.
Abe, who was 67 years old, came from a prominent political family with deep roots in Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — his grandfather and great uncle served as prime minister and his father was once a high-ranking official of the LDP. As prime minister, Abe instituted policies that revived Japan’s stagnant economy, but his most important achievement was expanding Japan’s military and aligning Japan’s foreign policy with Trump’s more confrontational approach to China.
In a sense, Abe was to the United States in the post-Cold War world what Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida was to America in the immediate Cold War years. Yoshida, who served more than seven years as prime minister, skillfully guided a defeated Japan into a post-World War II security alliance with its conqueror. He worked seamlessly with Gen. Douglas MacArthur to rebuild Japan, feed its people, revive its economy, and align its foreign policy with America’s containment of the Sino-Soviet bloc. Under Yoshida’s leadership, Japan became America’s most important ally in the Asia-Pacific, and he set it on a course of economic growth and political stability. In his book Leaders, Richard Nixon called Yoshida the “Churchill of Japan.”
After Trump was elected president in 2016, the first foreign leader he met with was Abe. Abe shared Trump’s populist instincts, including a dislike for Japan’s version of America’s “mainstream media.” Abe also shared Trump’s view that China posed the greatest challenge to the U.S.-led world order and he understood that Japan had to play a greater role in helping the United States contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. In 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that “No foreign leader has closer ties to President Donald Trump than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.” Trump once called Abe “the greatest prime minister in Japan’s history.”
When Trump’s policy toward China shifted in a more confrontational direction, Abe was right there with the United States, promoting the regional QUAD security partnership and pledging to help defend Taiwan. Indeed, after he resigned, Abe spoke out even more about the Chinese threat to Taiwan and called for ending the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” and replacing it with “strategic clarity.”
Shinzo Abe will be remembered as one of the great leaders in Japan’s post-World War II history. If the United States successfully meets the Chinese geopolitical challenge in the 21st century — and with the current U.S. administration at the helm that is very much in doubt — some of the credit will go to that staunchest of America’s Asian allies. RIP.