After Shinzo Abe: Carrying the torch of freedom and democracy in Asia

Japan Racing Association

I returned home from a business trip to Nagata-cho on Friday July 8, the same day former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was murdered in cold blood.

Earlier, I was with some of his colleagues, including former Cabinet members, when we learned that he had been shot. Although his death was not officially announced until six hours later, we instinctively knew that his injuries were fatal.

Find his last political speech

When I returned to Kansai that evening, I found on my desk the text of one of his last major speeches before the start of the Upper House elections. It had arrived by post while I was away. The speech, published in a Japanese-language security journal, covered three main themes:

  • the war in Ukraine,
  • Japan’s future defense policy, and
  • Taiwan.

As readers will instantly recognize, the three themes are closely related.

A few days later, I brought this journal with me to read his speech on the Shinkansen in Nagoya before my own pre-scheduled lecture on July 11. Abe had been the guest speaker in May at the same venue. Before my speech, the organizers arranged a minute of silence. He was clearly highly respected by those gathered, many of whom were in mourning.

I referenced Abe quite often during my talk on Taiwan and the U.S.-Japan alliance, including mentioning at the beginning that Abe kindly wrote an endorsement for my English translation of Toshio Watanabe’s book, The Meiji Japanese who made modern Taiwan (Lexington), which was released in February 2022.

Last month, I also sent him and his brother, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, one of my latest books (中国の脅威に向けた新日米同盟) (Seirindo Publisher, 2022) on the need for a revamped bilateral alliance in light of the shifting balance of power in favor of China, a concern that deeply troubled Abe. He was also supportive of my other projects and I looked forward to working with him after the election.

His assassination is not only a personal loss, but a great loss for the country and the world, especially for Taiwan.

Solidarity leads to deterrence

The situation Taiwan faces is probably the worst ever, certainly at least since the 1950s. The People’s Republic of China has worked hard to isolate the centrally located island country from the strategically critical first island chain .

Taiwan now maintains full diplomatic relations with only 13 United Nations member states and with the Holy See (Vatican City), an observer state of the United Nations General Assembly.

I often explain to audiences that one of the main reasons Ukraine is able to fight against Russia in the wake of Russia’s invasion of its territory is that it is recognized by the international community.

If the rest of the world does not act quickly to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will. Force will prevail over reason.

It will be bad for everyone ー especially, but not limited to Japan.

Therefore, the first step in defending Taiwan is to (re)establish full diplomatic relations with the country. The PRC must understand that by attacking Taiwan – which it considers part of its own country and whose democratically elected government is filled with “secessionists” – it is attacking not just a small country, but rather the world. Solidarity leads to deterrence.

Of course, security relations with Taiwan must be strengthened. Defense cooperation must be strengthened. Combined and multilateral exercises conducted. Shared intelligence. Staff exchanged. However, the premise of all of this is that Taiwan is a free and democratic country in an important geostrategic area that must be defended at all costs.

How can the world say this convincingly when so few countries, including the United States and Japan, recognize this nation?

A contingency of Taiwan is the contingency of the world

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers the keynote speech at the 44th regular symposium of the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies (JFSS) on April 21, 2022 (photo by Shunsuke Sakamaki).

The consequences of a PRC seizure of Taiwan – which will come sooner rather than later if the world does nothing now – are not limited to Taiwan. The United States will be considered to have “lost Taiwan”. And his credibility, which is already at rock bottom, will be shaken. He could even be expelled from the Indo-Pacific, at least from East Asia.

Japan will be isolated and unable to trade as the Chinese PLA Navy and the so-called Chinese Coast Guard will harass Japanese commercial shipping and increasingly the Maritime Self-Defense Force and Japanese Coast Guard sent to escort ships .

The Philippines will also be immediately vulnerable, as will the rest of South and Southeast Asian countries, which are increasingly falling prey to China in its Belt and Road Initiative.

Need I mention the plight of the Pacific island nations, especially the four that bravely continue to recognize Taiwan?

Abe got it too. This is why he declared that a “contingency in Taiwan is a contingency in Japan”.

But a contingency of Taiwan is also the contingency of the world.

Identify sovereignty

Taiwan is a vibrant, free and sovereign democracy. It has a democratically elected leader and assembly, controls its own territory, has a competent and professional army, has its own currency, passport, culture and language.

He respects the rule of law. Its inhabitants are highly qualified and international. Its economy is advanced and prosperous, where innovation is valued.

The list can go on and on, but the bottom line is that Taiwan is a developed country that is highly integrated into the regional and global economy. Isolating — or better said, failing to exploit the potential that expanded relations mean for all the countries involved — not only hurts Taiwan, but hurts every country that lacks it.

In a widely quoted op-ed published this spring, Abe said, “The human tragedy that has befallen Ukraine has taught us a bitter lesson. There must be no more room for doubt in our resolution on Taiwan and in our determination to defend freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

PRC officials strongly criticized Abe’s remarks, which was not surprising. The PRC is neither free nor democratic and does not respect human rights or the rule of law.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Joe Biden hold a press conference at Motoakasaka Palace after their bilateral summit. (Photographed by Kazuya Kamokawa)

End strategic ambiguity

Furthermore, in the speech referenced at the beginning of this article, as well as in the aforementioned op-ed, Abe called on the United States to end its 40-year policy of “strategic ambiguity” and make a clear statement” not open to misinterpretation or multiple interpretations.

He argued that “the policy of ambiguity worked extremely well as long as the United States was strong enough to maintain it, and as long as China was far below the United States in terms of military power.

“But those days are over now. The US policy of ambiguity towards Taiwan now promotes instability in the Indo-Pacific region, encouraging China to underestimate US determination, while making the government in Taipei unnecessarily anxious.

I couldn’t agree more.

It was a brave and necessary request. Fortunately, US President Joe Biden appears to have responded to Abe when the US leader visited Japan six weeks later. He answered a reporter’s question during the May 23 joint press conference with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on whether the United States would defend Taiwan. “Yes,” he said, “it’s a commitment we made.”

I hope he goes all the way. Biden has made similar comments before since beginning his presidency.

Abe knew that time was running out for Taiwan. That’s why he increased his engagement with Taiwanese officials after leaving the premiership and increasingly spoke out on behalf of Japan’s immediate neighbor to the south.

It will be up to fellow ruling party members and friends and allies around the world to pick up the torch carried by Abe, lighting the way for a free, safe and prosperous Taiwan to continue to exist in the world.

I hope we won’t let the torch go out.


Author: Dr Robert D Eldridge

Eldridge is a former associate professor of US-Japan relations at Osaka University and the former political adviser to the US Marine Corps in Japan. He recently translated The Meiji Japanese who made modern Taiwan (Lexington, 2022).