Abe Shinzo in his own words
ABE SHINZO served longer as prime minister than anyone in Japan’s history, holding the office from 2012-2020. He stepped down because of a chronic illness, but quickly returned to his Diet seat. He remains a formidable presence in Japanese politics. He commands the largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Many of his policy ideas have endured beyond his tenure. And in his current capacity, he has been vocal about the need for an even more assertive security policy, using his bully pulpit to broach once-taboo topics, such as the possibility of Japan hosting American nuclear weapons or Japan’s role in a potential crisis around Taiwan. The Economist met Mr Abe in his current workplace, a standard Diet member’s office, decorated with many mementos from his time as prime minister, to discuss Japan’s foreign and security policy and his legacy. The interview began with a discussion of how the invasion of Ukraine has resonated in Japan, and of how Japan’s defence policy might evolve. The conversation ranged across Japan’s relationships with America, China, Russia and South Korea. It examined his legacy, and whether the current prime minister, Kishida Fumio, seeks to move away from Mr Abe’s signature economic policy, known as “Abenomics”. The following is a full transcript of our interview. It has been translated and lightly edited for clarity. The Economist: How has the war in Ukraine impacted Japan? It seems like the invasion has opened up new discussions about security here in Japan too—how do you see public opinion on security issues changing?Abe Shinzo: I believe the impact on Japan and the Japanese people has been very significant. First of all, the reality is that the United Nations (UN) Security Council does not function when the country in question is a permanent member of the council. In Japan, it was a mainstream idea that the UN should exercise its power and work to prevent such conflicts or deal with them after they have happened.The Japanese people have had to face the reality that, if a country is determined enough, an invasion, an act of aggression can actually occur. What’s more, a P5 nation made a nuclear threat.In such circumstances, we are coming to realise that our own efforts and our own willpower are of the utmost importance when it comes to protecting our country. Some countries may send us weapons and support us, but except for our allies, there is no country that would fight alongside us. Public opinion polls from almost all media show there is support for increased defence spending. That is a big change. As for discussing nuclear weapons, public opinion polls in almost all news organisations show that the number of people who think we “should” discuss the topic exceeds the number of those who think we “should not”. TE: The Liberal Democratic Party has proposed a target of 2% of GDP for defence spending. When you talk about increased spending, what’s at the top of your shopping list?AS: First of all, we have a shortage of funding for ammunition, ranging from bullets for machine guns to missiles for [surface-to-air missile] systems such as the SM-3 and PAC3. The budget for maintenance is also completely insufficient. For example, plans to reconstruct barracks or housing for Self-Defence Forces personnel have been put off for a long time, so the buildings are pretty worn out. That’s a big negative factor in terms of recruiting troops. In addition, we have existing contracts for various defence equipment, including the F-35 [fighter jets]. I think it’s necessary to acquire those already under contract ahead of schedule.At the same time, we must substantially increase research and development spending to promote technological innovation in new domains such as cyber, space, and electromagnetic. I believe that increasing the budget for these areas would contribute to Japan’s economic growth. America’s defence budget is about 100 trillion yen. That investment is one of the engines that propel growth in America.TE: You recently raised the issue of nuclear sharing. What advantages would nuclear sharing bring to Japan?AS: To be precise, I did not say Japan should adopt nuclear sharing. The fact is that many Japanese people, including politicians, do not know that NATO has a nuclear-sharing program. Countries such as Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands secure their deterrence by deploying nuclear weapons in their countries, and allowing their own armed forces to drop them. What I meant is that it should not be a taboo to discuss that reality. The idea was to trigger a wake-up call for how we think about nuclear deterrence. Japan is currently under extended deterrence, it has nuclear deterrence under the American nuclear umbrella. When Germany decided to share nuclear weapons, the Chancellor at that time wondered whether the country could ensure its own security by fully entrusting America.In the modern era of extended deterrence, I would like Japan and America to discuss when and how to retaliate with nuclear weapons, including in case of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. We should come up with a system that allows Japan to participate in the decision-making process. This would make America’s potential retaliation with nuclear weapons on Japan’s behalf more realistic, which would thus enhance our deterrence.The reality is that Japan is surrounded by three nuclear powers: Russia, North Korea, and China. North Korea recently conducted a successful ICBM test, meaning that it has put America’s mainland within range. Therefore, America must take the risk of a nuclear attack by North Korea into account when making the decision to launch tactical nuclear weapons into North Korea for the sake of Japan.If North Korea believes that America will not retaliate, the risk of a nuclear attack on Japan will rise. We must not let them believe that. To that end, it’s important for Japan and America to have thorough discussions and clarify that America will retaliate on our behalf.TE: How much do you worry about America’s longer-term reliability?AS: America is able to maintain its presence in the Indo-Pacific region and implement its forward deployment strategy because Japan hosts American military bases and gives a home port to their aircraft carriers.China will continue to expand its military power. Of course, Japan alone cannot balance China’s military power, so Japan and America must co-operate to achieve a balance. That’s why during my administration I changed the interpretation of the right to collective self-defence and created the security legislation so that Japan and America could co-operate closely to deal with such situations. But the US-Japan alliance is vital for America too, especially for its ability to maintain its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.TE: When one looks at America today, you see internal division and a tendency to retreat from the world. Does that make you concerned?AS: Traditionally, in America, the Republican Party has valued its allies. However, it is true that President [Donald] Trump made many demands to allied nations under his “America First” policy. I spent a great deal of time explaining to President Trump how the US-Japan alliance benefits America. His staff seemed to possess a more traditional, Republican view of security. As a result, I believe that President Trump came to understand the significance of the alliance. Of course, since the [Barack] Obama administration, the American military no longer acts as the “world’s policeman”. In that context, like-minded nations need to cooperate. But I still believe America must take the lead.Japan likes to speak about an ideal world. But we must change our attitude of leaving all military matters to America. Japan must take responsibility for peace and stability, and do our utmost by working together with America to achieve it.TE: You met with Vladimir Putin some 27 times. What advice would you offer on dealing with Putin now?AS: I don’t think there are many options left in this situation. There are lots of ways to analyse Putin’s character, but I think he is someone who believes in power and is a realist at the same time. He is not the type of person who pursues ideals, or makes sacrifices for ideas. Before the invasion, when they had surrounded Ukraine, it might have been possible [to avoid war]. If [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky could have been made to promise that his country will not join NATO, or made to grant a high degree of autonomy to the two enclaves in the east. I understand this would be hard to do—perhaps an American leader could have done it. But of course [Zelensky] would refuse.However, now that we are here, I think the only way forward is to stand with Ukraine and thoroughly oppose Russia’s aggression. That is the way to protect the international order that we have created since the end of World War II.TE: Do you regret spending so much political capital and time on Putin?AS: Not at all. I thought we had to reduce the threat in the north, and put our forces in the south-west. I thought it was my responsibility to conclude a peace treaty, and negotiate to solve the problem of the four islands. Many Russians are overwhelmingly opposed to returning the Northern Territories to Japan. In this situation, it would be difficult for a leader without a solid base of power to resolve the issue of the four islands. I believed that Putin was the right person for the job. I believed that he understood the benefits of concluding a peace treaty with Japan in the medium to long term.We reached an agreement in Singapore, and then there was progress at the Buenos Aires meeting. But unfortunately, even he does not have complete dictatorial power, and even he cannot decide everything. I believe he hesitated in the face of strong opposition. Almost everyone except him was against the peace treaty or against proceeding with negotiations to resolve the territorial issue. It may also have to do with how his approval rating was on the decline.TE: What do you make of the relationship between Russia and China? They say it is a “friendship with no limits.” How does it look to you?AS: Both China and Russia are becoming challengers to the orders that have been established since the end of the war. Over the past few years, the two countries have conducted joint military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. Last year, there was an exercise by Chinese and Russian naval vessels where they circled the Japanese archipelago. In that context, I thought about breaking up the Sino-Russian partnership as much as possible.In terms of economic power, China is definitely more of a concern. Given the current situation, Russia is likely to lose its power and become a junior partner to China.TE: Does the new administration in South Korea open opportunities to mend relations with the country?AS: I think there is an opportunity. In terms of security, the new President Yoon [Suk-yeol] seems to understand the critical importance of cooperation between Japan and South Korea, as well as between America, Japan, and South Korea. I met with their policy consultation delegation the other day, and that is what I believe based on what I heard from them.As for the issue of the Comfort Women Agreement or the issue of conscripted labourers, it is important for them to make sure that they are dealing fully on the basis of the treaty and the commitments that have been made between the two countries. [In 2015 Japan and South Korea reached an agreement to settle their dispute over “comfort women”, a euphemism for South Korean women who were forced into prostitution by Japan’s imperial army during the second world war – TE]TE: So they have to make the first move?AS: The Comfort Women Agreement was already agreed to by [former South Korean] President Park Geun-hye on the basis that it is “final” and “irreversible”. But [her successor] President Moon Jae-in later overturned the agreement. I would like to see them restore the agreement.TE: Is the Kishida administration’s “New Capitalism” a break from Abenomics?AS: We don’t know much about the content of New Capitalism yet, so I can’t really comment on it. But considering the current economic situation in Japan, I believe there are no viable policies other than the “three arrows” [of Abenomics]: bold monetary policy, fundamental fiscal policy, and a growth strategy.TE: As you look back at your time in office, what do you think your legacy will be?AS: Through Abenomics, we were able to escape from deflation—perhaps not entirely—but still, we managed to escape from it, and create more than 4m jobs to grow the economy. Another legacy is changing the interpretation of the constitution, enabling the country to exercise its basic right to self-defence. Also, I presented the big vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Finally, the TPP [a multilateral Asian trade pact – TE] and the EU-Japan EPA [a bilateral trade deal between Japan and the European Union – TE] helped create open and free economic zones based on high-level, high-standard [trade] rules.TE: Your administration made many changes to the laws on Japan’s security policy and Self-Defence Forces, without formally revising the constitution. Have those changes been sufficient?AS: Reinterpreting the constitution has allowed the US-Japan alliance to evolve into one where the two countries can help each other mutually. It was epoch-making in that sense. For example, it is because of this legislation that we are now able to deal with the situation in Taiwan. [In the past, Japan’s Self-Defence Forces could use force only in response to a direct attack on Japan, but legal changes made during Mr Abe’s administration mean they can be dispatched for collective self-defence beyond Japan’s borders, opening the possibility for Japan to support America during a potential crisis in Taiwan – TE]TE: You stated recently that “a Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency.” Do you think the Japanese public shares that view?AS: Japan and Taiwan are only 100km apart. In the event of an armed attack on Taiwan, China would have to enter Japanese airspace in order to secure air superiority. It would definitely trigger a ”critical situation” under the Peace and Security Law, and we would be providing logistical support to the American military. Many Japanese are engaged in business activities in Taiwan. I am sure this will be well understood by many Japanese people.