Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated in Nara, Japan, on July 8. As messages of condolence poured in from around the world, the quickest and most emotional of them came from two countries: India and Taiwan, both of whom have lost a loyal and true friend with Abe’s untimely demise.
As an Indian living in Taiwan whose work is deeply influenced by Abe’s policies on India and Taiwan, I understand why there are striking similarities between the responses of Indians and Taiwanese to his passing.
One of the swiftest responses came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wrote several messages on Twitter expressing his shock and sadness, announced a day of mourning for the nation and penned a personal article titled “My friend, Abe san.” He called Abe “an outstanding leader of Japan, a towering global statesman and a great champion of India-Japan friendship.”
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had a similar response, calling Abe Taiwan’s “most loyal best friend.” Tsai visited the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, Japan’s representative office in Taiwan, to pay her respects to Abe. In the condolence book, she wrote: “Thank you for your contributions to Taiwan-Japan friendship, and democracy, freedom, human rights and peace around the world.”
Vice President William Lai (賴清德) attended Abe’s family funeral, making him the highest-level Taiwanese official to visit Japan in 50 years. In 1985, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), then vice president, made a stopover in Japan on his way to the US, but that was also categorized as a personal trip.
These responses are natural given how Abe transformed the nature of India-Japan ties as well as India-Taiwan relations. In 2010, speaking about his meeting with then-legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) on Taiwan’s and Japan’s overlapping claims on the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands), Abe told the media that “given Japan and Taiwan’s deep friendship, there are no unsolvable problems.”
It was under Abe’s tenure in 2017 that the name of Japan’s representative office was changed from Interchange Association to Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. In the Japanese government’s Diplomatic Bluebook, Taiwan is described as an “extremely crucial partner and an important friend,” where common values and shared interests such as “freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law” are highlighted.
Abe became more vocal on Taiwan after stepping down as prime minister in 2020. After China banned Taiwan’s pineapple imports, he posed with Taiwanese pineapples in a photograph posted to social media as a gesture of support for Taiwan.
Earlier this year, he wrote an article arguing for the US to abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity. He even became a regular speaker at Taiwanese think tanks’ virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He normalized discussion about Taiwan in the Japanese political arena. The effect of this was such that even after he was no longer in power, Taiwan and Japan initiated party-to-party talks between the Democratic Progressive Party and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party.
In India, Abe was well-known and respected. Indian media covered the news of his assassination as if it were India’s loss: In a way, it was. Abe believed in India and encouraged its leadership to play a greater role when the West was hardly paying attention to the country.
Abe was not only one of the strongest advocates of the Indo-Pacific region and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, he was also one of the biggest supporters of India’s participation in global and regional affairs. In 2007, he delivered a landmark speech at the Indian Parliament. He chose India to proclaim Japan’s views of the Indo-Pacific region.
During his tenure as prime minister, he aligned with India on several issues. Even when India withdrew from negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Japan hoped for India’s return to the pact.
The trust between New Delhi and Tokyo is such that Japan is investing in infrastructure development in India’s strategic northeast region and the cooperation is further institutionalized with the Act East Forum. The two countries have joined hands in providing a credible alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In India and Taiwan, he will be remembered as a friend and a supporter who very well understood the perils of being a neighbor of belligerent China with active territorial disputes.
Sana Hashmi is a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and an affiliated academic at the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs in Japan.
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