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What’s Behind Abe Shinzo’s Reaganesque Straight Talk on China?

16 Dec 2021
By Dr Ted Gover
Shinzo Abe, former prime minister of Japan. Source: Center for Strategic & International Studies

China’s increasingly aggressive posture towards Taiwan has concerned policymakers in the Pacific. Abe Shinzo’s speech on Taiwan’s security provided a needed pushback against China’s intimidation campaign.

In Abe’s video address on 1 December to the Taipei-based Institute For National Policy Research, the former Japanese prime minister set out to address regional security concerns as well as establish key markers in domestic Japanese politics, emphasising that Japan would not stand by if China attacked Taiwan. Differing historical dynamics aside, Abe’s remarks had hints of Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin Wall Speech that took on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev directly in the name of freedom and security.

Abe mentioned Chinese President Xi Jinping by name three times during his speech, emphasising that the US-Japan alliance would consider a Taiwan security crisis as an “emergency.” Abe went on to urge Xi to not “step onto a wrong path,” stating that a Chinese offensive against the island would lead to “economic suicide,” and warned that Xi should not fail to understand the gravity of the situation. Abe also stated that “a Taiwan that guarantees freedom and human rights” is in “Japan’s interests” and “… in the interests of the whole world.”

The unique nature of Abe’s talk was obvious. In a world in which governmentscompanies, and international organisations – such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) –  grovel and apologise to the Chinese Communist Party, Abe wound up at the pitcher’s mound and let fly a torrent of high brushback pitches towards Xi and the CCP.

In his speech, the former prime minister had two objectives. The first was to strongly articulate Japan’s position on China’s threats to Taiwan. The second was to politically constrain Japan’s new prime minister, Kishida Fumio, and foreign minister, Hayashi Yoshimasa.

The concerns expressed by former Prime Minister Abe were clear. Prospects of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan threaten Japan, and the island must be allowed to maintain its open democracy and free society.

Japan’s apprehensions of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan are understandable and justified. A Chinese takeover would place Japan in a vulnerable position, given Taiwan’s strategic geography of being a key part of the first island chain. Such a scenario would limit America’s ability to project force in East Asia and secure Japan, while placing Chinese forces within 100 kilometers from Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.

In some ways, Abe’s blunt comments ran counter to Washington’s long-held “strategic ambiguity” policy towards the Taiwan Strait, which some American lawmakers have begun advocating for the Biden administration to abandon. Regardless, Abe’s address may be helpful in  serving as a deterrent to escalation during China’s ongoing pressure campaign against Taiwan.

Abe’s comments did not occur in a vacuum. They echo statements by Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro in July, who described an attack on Taiwan as an “existential threat” that would require Japan and the US to “defend Taiwan together.” This comes as Japan’s 2021 Defense White Paper referred to Taiwan for the first time as being integral to the peace and security of East Asia. It also follows Japan’s cabinet approving a significant defence spending boost, new security initiatives with European partners, as well as efforts to strengthen the defence capabilities of Southeast Asian states while deepening ties with fellow Quad member countries.

Yet, as chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction – the conservative 95-member Abe faction – there were also Japanese parliamentary political objectives in Abe’s Taiwan speech. Prime Minister Kishida, who heads the LDP’s Kochikai faction, which is known for its efforts toward fostering Japan-China relations, has been a dovish centrist throughout his career in the public service. This moderate approach is a contrast to Abe’s hardline positions on China over the years.

Foreign Minister Hayashi, formerly the head of a lawmakers group supporting friendly Japan-China ties, has been labelled as a soft-on-China “panda hugger” by conservative elements of the party – by Abe and Aso in particular. Hayashi is also seen as a rival to Kishida and is rumoured to be aspiring to become prime minister. Against this backdrop, Abe’s address can be viewed as an effort to influence the Kishida administration and maintain a tough policy towards Beijing.

As Timothy Langley of the Tokyo-based Langley Esquire explained during Japan Expert Insights lecture on 5 December, Abe’s comments about Taiwan may also have been intended to damage Foreign Minister Hayashi politically. Both men’s families are old political rivals from Yamaguchi Prefecture who are jostling over a redistricting change in which the area will likely see one Lower House seat be eliminated ahead of the next general election due to local population declines.

China’s increasingly aggressive posture towards Taiwan has concerned many policymakers in the Pacific. Abe’s Reaganesque speech on Taiwan’s security pushed back against China’s ongoing intimidation campaign and was an attempt to change the status quo in the region. It  injected a jolt of resolve into the US-Japan alliance to demonstrate the allies’ determination in maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait and speaking in defence of shared democratic values, while also attempting to both steer the Kishida administration towards a harder stance on China and protect the Abe family’s electoral constituency interests in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Ted Gover, Ph.D. (@TedGover), is Clinical Associate Professor at Claremont Graduate University. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.