What The Shinzo Abe Assassination Could Mean For The China Question
The death of the former Japanese Prime Minister has provoked different reactions between mainland China and Taiwan, but also between government officials and the public in the People's Republic. Looking ahead, will Japan's pro-Taiwan stance stick for the long haul?
The assassination of Shinzo Abe has shocked the world, and East Asia in particular. The longest-serving Japanese prime minister was admired for his personal charisma and stern decisiveness, but was also among the most conservative and nationalistic leaders in the region's post-War history.
Even if he is credited with stabilizing Japan's economy, his two stints in office are notable for coinciding with the rise of China as a global economic and military power.
After Abe was shot to death Friday while on a campaign event, the reaction from the People's Republic of China offered a significant discrepancy between what was said from official government channels and the public via social media. President Xi Jinping and China’s Foreign Ministry had “amicably” offered their condolences, while countless posts and videos from the Chinese internet celebrated the death of a “national enemy.”
A Japanese militarist
Abe’s death occurred exactly one day after the 85th anniversary of imperial Japan’s mass invasion of China. He had a notorious reputation in China, where he was considered a historical "denier" of Japanese war crimes, including sex slavery known as "comfort women" that included Chinese and Korean victims in the 1930s and 1940s. Nikkeidaily recalled Abe also made controversial visits to the Yasukuni shrine, where imperial Japanese militarism was glorified and 12 war criminals from World War II are buried.
Apart from Abe’s position on Japanese imperial history, his era had also witnessed ups and downs in current Sino-Japanese relations. The interactions between the two neighboring countries had been relatively cold due to territorial disputes, particularly in the South China Sea.
It was only the visits of the Chinese premier Li Keqiang to Japan and Abe’s visit to China in 2018 (the first visit of a Japanese Prime Minister to China in seven years) that broke the ice and maintained the fragile Sino-Japan relationship. The trade war between China and the U.S. and the reinforced Japan-U.S. alliance have also put Sino-Japanese relations under strain since 2020.
In Xi’s official condolences, he described Abe as someone who “had worked hard to improve relations between the neighbors”. However, the gleeful reactions on Chinese social media, which are tolerated by Beijing, show Abe’s controversial image in this country.
Taiwan's most firm friend
Meanwhile, Abe had never concealed his efforts to strengthen Japan’s relationship with Taiwan, maintaining his firm position that there would be a response to any attempt by the mainland to invade across the Taiwan Strait, which had repeatedly antagonized Beijing.
Abe was considered Japan’s most pro-Taiwan political leader since the 1960s, wrote Chinese news outlet The Initium. He maintained good relationships with politicians from Taiwan’s two major parties, including former presidents Ying-jeou Ma, Teng-hui Lee and current president Ing-wen Tsai.
In 2013, the Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement was signed under Abe and president Ma, and has proved instrumental in stabilizing relations between Taiwan and Japan, while reinforcing communications and cooperation between the two countries.
Abe was a strong advocate for Taiwan’s security and interests.
After stepping down as Prime Minister two years ago for health reasons, Abe had been even more open about his support for Taiwan, and made several clear statements on his stance on the Taiwan Strait security issues. When Beijing banned the import of Taiwanese pineapple in April 2021, Abe posted a photo of himself smiling with the fruit on his social media showing support and promoting the product, which won many Taiwanese hearts.
Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing in 2019.
In December, Abe made perhaps the boldest statement yet about the issue, when he declared: “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency,” warning Beijing that “any invasion of Taiwan” would be “suicidal.” China’s Foreign Ministry lashed back at Abe.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Abe wrote a provocative op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in April, comparing the Ukrainian crisis to the Taiwan Strait and openly urging the U.S. to “defend Taiwan.”
On hearing of Abe’s assassination, current Taiwan president Tsai expressed her regrets on losing “Taiwan’s most firm old friend.” Taiwan’s landmark, the skyscraper Taipei 101, was lit up with messages paying tribute to Abe, while on Monday, government bodies and public schools in Taiwan flew flags at half-mast.
There are few who doubt that we will see any radically different approach to China from Japan''s current leader, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is from Abe's party.
Still, the assassination — which did not appear to be linked directly to electoral politics — came in the final hours of the campaign for the Upper House election of the Japanese legislature. And though results from Sunday's vote show that the Liberal Democratic Party of Abe and Kishida has won a majority, we can be sure that both Beijing and Taipei will be watching the evolution of Japanese politics closer than ever.