Abe Shinzo’s legacy as a norm entrepreneur in the Indo-Pacific will last beyond his resignation as Prime Minister of Japan. Abe made a significant contribution to the regional order by pioneering, developing and realising the Indo-Pacific concept.
Abe was the first world leader to articulate an Indo-Pacific strategy, recognising the strategic importance of the convergence of the Indian and Pacific oceans. He masterfully carved out the concept to build a coalition of like-minded states to buttress and advance shared interest in the face of increased Chinese assertiveness and uncertain US engagement. He recognised threats posed to the region, understood Japan’s strategic weight, and courted India and other regional powers to adopt the Indo-Pacific as a security framework.
This deep understanding of the region not only allowed Abe to advance Japan’s strategic interest—by way of articulating and advocating for the Indo-Pacific concept—but by sharing this understanding Abe also shifted strategic thinking throughout the region. This contribution to realising the Indo-Pacific should not go unrecognised.
Confluence of the Two Seas
Abe was an Indo-Pacific visionary who imagined the region as a two-ocean system, geographically bounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans. He debuted this concept in his landmark speech – ‘The Confluence of the Two Seas’
– made to the Indian Parliament in 2007. Confluence
serves as the foundational speech of Indo-Pacific: the genesis of an original concept that would later shape the strategic architecture of the region. In this speech, Abe called for a “broader Asia”, that would expand the previous geographic imagination of the region westward to incorporate a rising India.
Abe’s advocacy for the Indo-Pacific was well ahead of its time. It would not be until 2013 that the Australian government formally adopted the geographic concept its in Defence White Paper
of that year. The US then followed in 2017
, and ASEAN in 2019
Not only did Abe define the region geographically
, but he also articulated his vision as a normative
concept. Recognising the growing strategic importance of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and a shared interest in securing these seas, Abe advocated for the “dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and prosperity”. The language used in Confluence
underlines the normative basis for his conception of the Indo-Pacific: a regional architecture built upon the principles of freedom, openness and respect for international law.
A “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific
Abe went beyond a diplomatic engagements to advocate for the Indo-Pacific concept. His foreign policy during his second term as Prime Minister (2012-2020) revolved entirely around realising it. The Indo-Pacific was given doctrinal and institutional form via Japan’s flagship ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific
’ (FOIP) strategy, which was later rebranded as a ‘vision’
. FOIP reiterated the ideas Abe proposed in his 2007 speech in reaction to heightened Chinese naval activity, and growing fears of the US’s declining regional presence. It articulated the key principles of rule of law, freedom of navigation, economic prosperity, and sought out to implement a rules-based and open maritime order, avoiding conflict and dominance by any one country.
After the disintegration of the first iteration of the ‘Quad’ in 2008, Abe pushed for the establishment of a ‘democratic security diamond
’. In an essay written at the commencement of his second term as prime minister, Abe argued that Japan, India, Australia and the US should work together to “safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific”
Noting the strategic convergence between the four regional powers, Abe kick-started the revival of the Quad to its current form. Japan has also expanded its Quad advocacy in its enthusiastic push for Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercise
alongside India and the US. Abe’s proactive approach in advocating for regional coalitions distinguish him as the most vocal proponent for shaping a regional architecture in favour of shared interests.
Perhaps the most critical element to realising the Indo-Pacific concept was Abe’s effort to engage India in regional affairs. Growing in strategic and economic might, Abe recognised India as the lynchpin of Indo-Pacific expansion. From the very beginning, Abe demonstrated a recognition of India’s strategic partnership, reflected in the fact he gave his landmark Confluence
speech to Indian parliament.
Later, Abe worked to establish a strong personal relationship with new Indian prime minster Modi (elected in 2014), embodied in their ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’
. India and Japan shared an understanding of the Indo-Pacific was a way to navigate the turbulence of regional politics to uphold a rules-based order. Abe’s diplomatic effort to bring India on board with the concept paid off when India formally asserted its own Indo-Pacific vision at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue.
Abe’s tireless championing of the Indo-Pacific set the concept on a course for adoption throughout the region. His efforts were successful in motivating the Trump administration to embrace Indo-Pacific language in US foreign policy, most notably during Trump’s 2017 Trip to Asia
. The Indo-Pacific concept has subsequently become a focus in US foreign policy; a challenging significant feat given the unpredictable nature of Trump’s foreign policy moves. Abe was effective in maintaining a friendly diplomatic relationship with Trump and managed to avoid the worst of Trump’s negative trade moves.
Very few world leaders, and no previous Japanese Prime Minister, have catalysed such a significant change in US foreign policy.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted Indo-Pacific language with the publication of ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific
in 2019, a landmark achievement given the large membership of regional states in the grouping. Even France
– two countries not normally associated with this part of the world – have adopted Indo-Pacific strategies. Today, practically all governments have adopted the Indo-Pacific concept for framing regionalism.
Saving the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Abe did not merely talk
about a rules-based regional order, he actively walked the walk, even when doing so was costly. Participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement provides a telling example. Prior to Japan joining the negotiations in 2010, the TPP was a “US and friends” agreement with limited regional clout.
Entering the TPP was especially challenging for Japan, as it meant confronting entrenched practices of agricultural protectionism that no previous Prime Minister had been able to change. Yet Abe did, leading Japan into the most reform-oriented trade agreement of its history; and ensuring the TPP would be a systematically important contribution to the regional architecture.
Japan was also called upon to save the TPP when it was abandoned by the Trump Administration in early 2017. As the lure of market access to the US was critical for many TPP members, it would be assumed that US departure would terminally compromise the agreement. Yet by working in partnership with Australia, Abe committed to rebuilding the TPP. These efforts were instrumental in ensuring the success of the ‘Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership’ was completed with all eleven remaining members only a year later.
Resuscitating the TPP was not only a major regional achievement, but also a landmark in Japan’s own regional diplomacy. Never before had Japan played the role of ‘key architect’ behind a regional agreement. This was instrumental in showing that Japan can step into diplomatic leadership roles when the US falters.
Abe successfully led Japan to its trusted position as the guardian of the Indo-Pacific. He strengthened Japan’s international reputation and consolidated partnerships. Amidst the geostrategic turbulence of the region, Abe’s diplomatic leadership and norm advocacy created a sense of security for like-mined countries. He recognised Japan’s potential as a reginal power and maximised its capabilities to advance its strategic agenda, successfully bringing other regional powers under its umbrella.
Abe’s active Indo-Pacific policy approach has been critical to establishing and maintaining a rules-based regional order as we know it today. His departure begs the question: will Japan be able to continue on this course of regional advocacy and leadership initiated by Prime Minister Abe?
While it is yet to be announced who will be taking Abe’s spot as prime minister, it is clear that his successor will have his work cut out for him. Abe leaves behind the regional environment even more contested than he found it. The next prime minister will be confronted with an unstable neighbourhood, highly pressed by China’s heightened militarisation in the South China Sea, including multiple incursions in the Senkaku Islands.
Furthermore, US domestic divisions and the upcoming election add a layer of uncertainty to US engagement in the region.
COVID-19 further complicates these issues and creates a hurdle to regional integration. During Abe’s tenure, he visited and engaged with around eighty countries. However, it will be difficult for the incoming prime minister to establish diplomatic relationships with regional leaders without physical visits.
Abe’s successor will need to break even more ground in maintaining Japan’s role as an upholder of the rules-based order. Although there are challenges presented by regional stability, the deeply institutionalised relationships consolidated under Abe – particularly that of India and Australia
– offer some continuity.