Abe leaves ‘complex legacy’ to China-Japan relations, Chinese public opinions reasonable; objective evaluation becomes world’s mainstream when initial shock ebbs away
Published: Jul 13, 2022 12:28 AM
In this file photo taken on April 21, 2015 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waves as he headed for Indonesia at the Tokyo International Airport. Photo:AFP

In this file photo taken on April 21, 2015 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waves as he headed for Indonesia at the Tokyo International Airport. Photo:AFP

The funeral of Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving prime minister in Japan's history who was shot and killed while giving a speech last week, was held in Tokyo on Tuesday. The death of such an influential political figure has drawn global attention, and the response has become more objective and less emotional in the wake of his death, with Chinese analysts saying Abe left behind him a complex legacy for China-Japan relations, international relations, as well as in Japan his own country.

According to Japanese media NHK, after the funeral, his body would be driven to the prime minister's office and other places central to Japanese politics for a final farewell. The funeral was attended by about 2,500 people, including Abe's political allies and adversaries, foreign dignitaries and business leaders.

Abe, especially during his 2012-20 term, made significant changes to not only Japan but also international relations, said experts, including "Abenomics" and the successful bid for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics that successfully activated Japan's economy for a short period of time but failed to effectively fundamentally stop the country's recession. He also brought about the rise of right-wing conservative thought among Japanese society that cleared the way for his successor to amend Japan's pacifist constitution. 

This has caused concern from Japan's neighbors including China, as well as North Korea and South Korea. In addition, the vision for a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" he announced in 2016 is believed to be the inspiration for the US' "Indo-Pacific Strategy" that targets China and is increasing the tension and uncertainty in the region. James Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, said in an article published on Bloomberg that Abe is "the father of Quad," the four-nation security alliance that includes Japan, Australia, the US and India.

So, Abe's image will surely be complicated, with both positive comments and criticisms based on what he has done and on the remarks he has made. Those who criticize Abe should not be silenced because of the way he died, and the outside world needs to learn and understand the reasons behind the critical attitude held by many Chinese people toward Abe which are just in opposition to voices from the large part of the Western world, Chinese analysts said. 

Complicated legacy

After Abe's death was formally announced, Chinese leaders sent messages of condolence to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Saturday. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his message that Abe made efforts to improve China-Japan relations during his time in office and contributed positively to this endeavor. Xi said he had reached important consensus with Abe on building a China-Japan relationship that meets the needs of the new era, adding that he deeply regrets the sudden passing of Abe, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Saturday.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in his message that Abe "made positive contributions to the improvement and development of China-Japan relations. I met with him multiple times and had positive exchanges of views on promoting bilateral ties," Xinhua reported.

The messages from Chinese leaders show the official evaluation of Abe from the Chinese side with the appropriate diplomatic courtesy, and among Chinese public opinion, including academic circles and social media networks, the comments showed a much more diverse picture. 

Liu Jiangyong, vice dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Tuesday that Abe did make some contributions to improving China-Japan relations, but he also caused damage and negative impacts. 

"In general, those negative impacts still exist," Liu said. These impacts have made the positive changes in bilateral ties that were realized in his term turn more into conflict and friction, and these have interfered with his successors' policy toward China and the future development of China-Japan relations, Liu noted.

In 2018, Abe made an ice-breaking visit to China, and in his meeting with Xi in Beijing, he said, "It is hoped that through this visit, the two sides will usher in a new era when 'competition is transformed into coordination.'" 

Calling the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative "promising," Abe said Japan was willing to beef up cooperation with China in wide areas, including the exploration of third-party markets.

After the 2018 visit, economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries were greatly boosted, and in 2019, Abe and former South Korean president Moon Jae-in visited China to mark the 20th anniversary of the China-Japan-South Korea Cooperation.

Chinese analysts said these positive memories of China-Japan ties during Abe's term are driven by Abe's ambition to normalize Japan rather than simply boosting the ties with China, because at that time, Donald Trump was US president. Trump brought great uncertainties to almost every major power around the globe including Japan, and also greatly impacted free trade which is crucial to Japan. Therefore, Abe's decision to fix ties with China was based on Japan's interests at that time.

And this is why in 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic ruined the recovery of China-Japan ties as well as the Tokyo Olympics, together with the power transition in the US that ended Trump's term, the Abe administration gradually changed its attitude toward China. Abe returned to the strategy of using the US' intention to contain China to strengthen regional alliances, and tried to expand these alliances to include India, experts noted. 

From 'friendly' to provocative  

To be objective, Abe's pragmatic policy has improved the China-Japan ties over times, especially after the tensions between the two countries caused by Japan's act to "nationalize" China's Diaoyu Islands in 2012, so his move to fix ties with China after 2012 really needed political courage. However, the real intent was not to lift China-Japan relations to a new stage, analysts said.

"Abe has never been friendly to China with sincerity, as he just wanted to make use of both the US and China from time to time to realize his ambition to 'normalize' Japan, or in other words, to make Japan get rid of the constraints of its pacifist constitution and become a powerful country again," said a Beijing-based expert on international relations who asked for anonymity.

Liu said Abe is a pragmatic and sophisticated politician, as he knew that visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan's infamous Class-A war criminals who symbolized Japan's war atrocities and militarism during World War II, would deeply offend China and make it difficult for him to fix ties with China. He did not visit during his time in office, but when he left office, he visited the shrine time and again. 

"Deep down in his bones, he is a right-wing conservative politician with a problematic historical view," said the above-mentioned expert. "We also won't forget that in [Barack] Obama's term, Abe actively encouraged the US to push the establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was an obvious attempt to isolate China, and he also made Obama promise Japan that the US-Japan security treaty covered China's Diaoyu Islands," he said. 

Liu said that after Abe left office, he put great efforts into pushing collusion with the secessionist Taiwan authorities and encouraging Taiwan secessionism, and this was aimed at setting the direction for the Kishida administration.

Abe made a lot of provocative remarks on the Taiwan question, including calling on the US to abandon its ambiguity on whether the US would defend Taiwan if the Chinese mainland launched a military operation to reunify the island, because he believed that if China realized national reunification, Japanese and US interests would be greatly impacted.

Abe's efforts to encourage Taiwan secessionists resurfaced at his funeral, as the secessionist Taiwan authorities want to make the best use of his death to gain international attention. William Lai Tsing-te, deputy leader of the island of Taiwan and a secessionist politician, attended Tuesday's funeral in a "private capacity," and the Japanese government also kept a low profile on the matter. A spokesperson of the Japanese Foreign Ministry said, "I only know this man [Lai] will stay in Japan and to condole as a friend of Abe."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a routine press conference on Tuesday that "after the sudden and unfortunate passing of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, the Taiwan authorities have sought to engage in political manipulation and benefit politically by taking advantage of the incident. Their political calculations will not succeed. The Chinese side has lodged stern representations to the Japanese side both in Beijing and Tokyo and has made our position absolutely clear."

It is futile for the Democratic Progressive Party to seek "Taiwan independence" under the pretext of offering condolences, the spokesperson of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council said on Tuesday, hoping that the Japanese government will abide by the one-China principle.

Analysts said this showed that the Japanese government is handling the issue carefully and does not want to offend China. The attempt to use Abe's death to serve Taiwan'a secessionist goal is nothing but a laughing stock. 

Critical comments

After Abe's death, Western media reported on critical comments from many Chinese netizens, with opinions that are very different from those in Western countries the object of criticisms, but those voices that have failed to understand the reasons behind Chinese netizens' attitude are one-sided and not objective, Chinese experts said. 

Chen Yang, an expert from the Institute of Japan Studies at Liaoning University, told the Global Times that "actually, there were mainly two kinds of voices among the Chinese social media networks - public opinion with objective and reasonable principles, and the public sentiment with emotional expression based on the opposition toward right-wing thought and Japanese militarism. Unfortunately, some Western media only focused on those very emotional expressions."

"Chinese people have kindness and sympathy, but it's impossible to ask every web user to speak like diplomats and professional journalists," Chen noted on Tuesday. 

Not only in China, some US media such as NPR, received unusual criticism after describing Abe as a "divisive arch-conservative" in a tweet about the news of the assassination. Later, NPR changed the description to "ultranationalist," with experts saying the comments are based on facts and Abe's political ideas with no bias. NPR still received unusual castigation, which means the evaluation of Abe among the West was hijacked by problematic "political correctness" to some extent.    

Chinese public opinion of Abe depends on what Abe did to China, and considering his efforts to use US strategy and alliance to contain China, and his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine after his term ended, as well as his collusion with and encouragement to the Taiwan secessionists, it is impossible to expect the majority of Chinese people not to make negative and critical comments about Abe, analysts said. They noted that the criticisms and emotional expressions reflect the real public opinion in China which is mostly based on patriotic sentiment. 

Japan after Abe

Analysts said after reading Xi's message of condolence, they found that China is not just acknowledging Abe's contributions to bilateral ties, but also acknowledging the rationality of Abe when he was a leader of Japan who had the courage to fix the worsening bilateral ties.

As Xi said in his message, he stands ready to work with Prime Minister Kishida to continue developing a good-neighborly friendship and cooperation between China and Japan in accordance with the principles established in the four political documents between the two countries.

Kishida should be more careful and have a better understanding of the signals that China had sent than Abe who has already passed away, said Chinese experts.  

Abe is a successful leader who awakened ambition among Japanese to make their country a major power again, and this is very important since the country experienced the "lost two decades" with the recession after the economic bubble burst in the 1990s, Chen said.

"Abenomics" solved Japan's deflation problem, boosted the tourist industry and brought confidence back, so even though the current devaluation of the yen and the economic slowdown was partly caused by economic policy during Abe's term, "Abenomics" is still a positive legacy for Japan, Chen said. 

But such awakening ambition also brings the rise of right-wing conservative ideology. In the latest elections, forces that support amending Japan's pacifist constitution obtained more than two-thirds of the votes in both upper and lower houses. 

More importantly, according to the polls provided by the Japanese media including Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun, about 56 percent of Japanese people support the amendment of the pacifist constitution, so many observers believe that Japan is likely to realize Abe's wish to break the constraints and to be armed and bring uncertainties to regional peace.