The loss of an inspirational leader and a friend

By Bruce Miller, Former Australian Ambassador to Japan

Under Abe Shinzo, Australia’s relations with Japan went from strength to strength, writes Bruce Miller.

On Friday, Japan lost an inspirational leader and Australia lost a friend in Abe Shinzo. It was my job, but also my pleasure, to know him, as Australian ambassador to Japan from 2011 to 2017.

I had met him during my earlier years in Tokyo, when he was a rising star in the ruling LDP, and he was one of my early calls when I returned to Japan as ambassador in 2011. He was then an opposition backbencher whom few thought would return to the prime ministership. Over several meetings we talked about ways to take further the Australia-Japan relationship, to which he had given such priority during his year as prime minister in 2006-07.

But it was clear during our conversations that he had also reflected on what had gone wrong during his first administration. He had realised that he needed to get the economy right for Japan to have weight in the world, he needed to compromise more, and that he needed to appeal to a wider audience than his own conservative heartland.

In the years that followed his return to power in December 2012, Australia’s relationship with Japan went from strength to strength under his leadership and through his ability to work closely with our prime ministers Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison. Abe understood Australia and Japan shared respect for the rule of law and democracy, and national interests in bolstering the rules-based order. And he was ambitious for our strategic relationship, wanting to bring us to the point where we could call ourselves de facto allies – he personally coined the term “special strategic partnership” to describe our relationship.

Abe and Turnbull
Former Prime Ministers of Japan and Australia Abe Shinzo and Malcolm Turnbull visit South Head, Sydney, Australia - January 14, 2017. Image credit: @TurnbullMalcolm, Twitter.

The record stands: conclusion of a free trade agreement, negotiation of our reciprocal access agreement (now signed), a strengthened defence and intelligence relationship, trilateral US-Japan-Australia cooperation, and now the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with India, resurrection of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement after US withdrawal, and a bilateral relationship where we turn to one another to work together almost regardless of the subject. It was Abe who intervened at key moments to overcome domestic opposition to our bilateral agenda, such as in March 2014 when he told me over lunch that he would deliver a good FTA outcome for prime minister Abbott’s visit the next month.

Some have described him as divisive and controversial. But a divisive and controversial leader would not have won six elections handsomely, nor successfully negotiated changes to Japan’s security and economic policies through parliamentary processes that place a premium on achieving consensus. To run the LDP, which is a broad church, and to do so in coalition with the Komeito party, a lay Buddhist pacifist party, required pragmatism, good negotiating skills and a willingness to compromise, all of which he had in spades.

Others have said he was by conviction a strong nationalist. True, but its only half the story, as he was above all a realist who could compromise in the national interest. A dyed-in-the-wool conservative nationalist would not have allowed agricultural reform, trade liberalisation and foreign labour entry, or refrained from visiting Yasukuni Shrine for six years or acknowledged that Japan inflicted immeasurable damage and suffering during the war.

Reflecting this pragmatism, he was careful about public messaging. On China, he took care to pick Japan’s battles and avoid unnecessary confrontation. But he understood that a strong Japan, a close US alliance, and a firm stance towards China was the key to regional stability.

While his signature economic policy of Abenomics did not deliver as promised, most senior Japanese business people say his stewardship was good enough, as every year his government drove one economic reform.

We saw trade liberalisation, starting with our Australia-Japan FTA in 2014, then the TPP, and the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement; reform of the hidebound agricultural sector; improvements in corporate governance to temper clubby Japanese corporate life; some progress on female participation in the workforce (albeit much more is needed); and a programme of foreign labour mobility.

Under Abe, Japan also firmed up its defence posture in response to a stronger China through constitutional re-interpretation, increased defence expenditure, and streamlined national security decision-making, all of which were big shifts for Japan.

Diplomacy was his strong suit. Abe knew before anyone else the value of personal engagement with Donald Trump, although wouldn’t have found that easy. On China, Abe set the template that most western countries adopted – holding firm on sovereignty and not conceding any of China’s conditions for resumption of high-level dialogue, but not adopting a defiant tone and still being open to engaging with China in areas where cooperation was possible. He strengthened relations with India, a partner not always easy to work with, and with Australia.

Even at the peak of his powers, he was never all powerful – he had to persuade his own party, and the broader Japanese system and the electorate. He was no autocrat. What differentiated Abe from most of his predecessors was his willingness to push change through once he gained a critical mass of support, and not wait for everyone to come on board.

His last years in power were marked by scandal and suggestions of corruption by people acting in his name – the sign of an administration that had perhaps gone on too long. But after stepping down, he remained a power in the land and still had much to contribute. And in a crisis, I could have seen him making a de Gaulle-like return to power if his country needed him.

The world is a safer place because Abe Shinzo knew that it was national strength and deterrence that brought peace and stability. As a final personal note, I will always remember his quiet charm, gentle disposition and how good a listener he was. Rest in peace.

Bruce Miller AO was Australian Ambassador to Japan from 2011 to 2017. He retired from the public service in 2017.

Banner image: Former Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo speaking at the Presidential Palace, Belgrade, Serbia - January 15, 2018. Credit: Shutterstock.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Australian Financial Review on July 10, 2022.