A month before he ended his first stint as Japan’s prime minister in 2007, Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. Quoting the Mughal scholar-prince Dara Shikoh, Abe spoke of the "confluence of the two seas” — the Indian and Pacific Oceans — that were undergoing a "dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.” India and Japan, said Abe, shared an interest in and responsibility for securing these seas "by joining forces with like-minded countries.”
In the years since, it has become commonplace to speak of the "Indo-Pacific.” Abe’s vision, as expressed then, is now integral to how diplomats and politicians across Asia, Oceania and beyond have begun to think. No leader in recent memory has so completely and profoundly transformed strategic thinking in Asia.
This point should not be lost now that Abe is stepping down from a second spell as prime minister, the longest in Japan’s history. However sweeping the changes he instituted at home, his successors are likely to continue most of his domestic policies. Where Abe’s absence will be felt most keenly is in the region he transformed just as dramatically.
Asian democracies will have to hope that Japan continues down the path Abe laid out, for several reasons. First, they need the Japanese government to push its powerful corporations to think strategically about investing in countries such as India. Such jawboning makes a difference, especially during crises like the one the region is suffering at the moment.
As one researcher puts it, the government in Tokyo can nudge its companies into "uncharacteristically rapid” decisions when it comes to overseas investment. Japan’s pandemic stimulus package didn’t only include a subsidy for companies that considered reshoring their production; it earmarked a fraction of that money for those who wished to shift production from China to Southeast Asia. Such policy markers have an impact that dwarfs the actual sums of money involved.
Second, the countries of the Indo-Pacific need a self-confident Japan to continue to promote its values overseas. This is partly a question of sustaining a positive, liberal narrative that continues to stress the importance of open seas and open markets.
But it’s also about hard cash: Under the "Abe model,” Japan has invested strongly in the region’s infrastructure, both directly and through the Asian Development Bank. Many growth-hungry countries in Asia are struggling to attract Western finance and are concerned about the strings attached to Chinese investment. Japan’s huge pool of investible savings is central to their aspirations for development.
Finally, the Indo-Pacific needs Abe’s central project to continue. Japan must see itself as a sensible and reliable participant in military partnerships aimed at deterring and managing China’s regional ambitions. Neighbors might respect Japan’s deep-rooted concerns about militarism. But Asia cannot afford a Japan that turns inward again.
I recognize that each of these questions deeply implicates Japan’s self-image — and therefore might take a generation to change. Getting conservative corporations to look outward and tolerate greater risk is quite a challenge when even creative young entrepreneurs in Japan rarely think about overseas markets for their innovations. Efforts to rebrand Japan’s external presence and its diplomatic image are complicated by bureaucratic indifference and troubled histories.
Many of Abe’s policies — both abroad and at home — may have been responses to the specific circumstances in which Japan found itself. Faced with a graying population, an undependable U.S. and a rising China, the country doesn’t have too many options other than to seek out regional allies. Yet I for one still worry that the energy Abe brought to the difficult task of making over Japan’s role in the world will be lost now that he’s left the scene.
That would be a disaster for the region’s democracies. Abe’s reference to "like-minded” countries in his 2007 speech seems prescient today, given the global slide towards illiberalism, including within our own polities. The day Abe returned to office in 2012, he wrote a column that pushed his notion of the Indo-Pacific even further, specifying that the region’s democracies needed to commit themselves to "preserving the common good.”
This was a prime minister who, for better or worse, seemed to see himself first of all as a convener of and evangelizer to the democracies of a "free and open” Indo-Pacific. Today, as India confronts Chinese troops in the high Himalaya, Australia wrestles with Beijing’s influence within its borders and the U.S. seems consumed by internal divides, Abe’s very Japanese form of assertiveness seems more irreplaceable than ever.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of "Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”