China and Taiwan
When I asked Abe what he thought about the situation regarding China and Taiwan, a difficult and sensitive subject, the thing that struck me most was his sense of crisis. It seemed to have been reinforced by Russia's invasion.
"I think the question is whether they would really launch a military invasion of Taiwan at the risk of enormous economic fallout," Abe told me. "What exactly are they thinking? Most experts agree they wouldn't suddenly storm the beaches of Taiwan without considering the potential cost."
"But they are already conducting major cyber-attacks, and waging information and propaganda warfare. So maybe they would start by taking some of the small islands belonging to Taiwan, and destabilize the Taiwanese administration that way."
What Ukraine conflict means for Japan
I also asked the former prime minister why Japan has taken such a firm stand against Russia over the Ukraine invasion. He told me the goal was to deter China from invading Taiwan.
Leaders in Beijing were furious when the US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August. President Xi Jinping repeated a pledge he had made previously to unify Taiwan with the mainland, and said he wouldn't rule out the use of force to do it.
"We're very concerned that what happened in Ukraine may happen in Taiwan," Abe said. "To prevent that from coming to pass, the international community must speak up as one against Russia, and impose tough sanctions. That will ensure the same thing doesn't happen in Asia."
Japan's security policy
Abe spearheaded new security legislation that represented a major shift in Japanese policy when it was enacted in 2015. Under the new law, where the government identifies a situation that, if left unresolved, could lead to an armed attack on Japan, it can provide logistical support to the forces of other countries. This is known as an "important influence situation." Additionally, in the event of an attack on foreign forces, if the government determines that "the existence of Japan is threatened by such an attack," then it can use force based on the right of collective self-defense – a right that Japan did not previously recognize. This is referred to as an "existential threat situation."
One important consequence of this second change is that the Japanese Self Defense Forces can now use force to protect US naval vessels when the Japanese government determines that a situation triggers the right to collective self-defense. Such a scenario might be possible in the event of military aggression by China against Taiwan. Abe had a keen awareness of this.
"Taiwan is only 110km from Yonaguni Island, which is Japanese territory," Abe said. "If China were to invade Taiwan, its forces would try to control the airspace to gain air superiority. That would be Japanese airspace."
"This would initially fall into the category of an 'important influence situation.' Japan would be able to provide logistical support to US forces. If US forces came under attack in this scenario, I think there's a good chance it would become an 'existential threat situation.'"
Dispatching the SDF
Prior to this interview, I had asked a senior government official if Japan would send SDF vessels to waters near Taiwan to protect US warships in the event of a conflict.
The response left no room for doubt: "We've made a law for this, so of course we'd send the SDF."
Ultimately, though, it's a decision for the prime minister. Just because it is legally possible to involve the SDF does not mean the prime minister would automatically give the green light.
In the first place, most Japanese people don't even realize that Japan could become caught up in a military conflict with China. They're not really aware of the legislation. A lot of people would be shocked to be confronted with the possibility of a sudden military collision with China. The public outcry would be so great that I think it would deter the prime minister from getting the SDF involved.
Abe was eager to pre-empt such a fallout.
"I think we need to have a discussion about this before it happens," he told me. "I've said many times that a Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency and a Japan-US alliance contingency."
A senior official at the Japanese defense ministry walked me through one potential scenario for a conflict.
"If the Chinese military begins preparations to invade Taiwan," the official said, "then we will be able to detect it, and at that stage, we'll send SDF vessels to the area around Taiwan and Yonaguni Island, along with US forces, to protect Yonaguni and other islands, and to dissuade China from invading. If an invasion were to take place in that context, it would become a battle between the US and China, and I think there is a high possibility that Japan would automatically be involved in the conflict."
Deterring China from military action
The late prime minister said it was vital for Japan to send a clear message to China that a military invasion would be a grave mistake.
"We need to be able to sufficiently deter their military from launching an invasion," he said. "We also need to keep strengthening our defense capabilities."
"Germany is going to increase its defense budget to 2% of GDP. I think it's important that Japan also locks in a big enough budget to increase its defense capabilities.
"On top of that, while we continue to strengthen the Japan-US alliance, we should also deepen our security cooperation within the framework of the Japan-US-Australia-India alliance. And we should increase our military collaboration with Britain, France, Germany and other like-minded countries that support the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region."
Abe wanted the US to abandon its 50-year policy of "strategic ambiguity" toward Taiwan and explicitly commit to defending it. He believed this would help to keep the peace in the region.
"Looking at the situation in Ukraine, if Ukraine had been in NATO, Russia probably wouldn't have invaded," he said. "Russia has never touched the Baltic States, countries that have much smaller militaries, because they are in NATO."
"Taiwan and the US have the Taiwan Relations Act, but they are not allies. I think it's important to make sure China does not misjudge America's position, and use force to attack Taiwan. The worst thing to do is to wait until a conflict has broken out and then intervene. Better to deter China from starting the conflict in the first place. That's why I think it's time for the US to clearly state that it is willing to defend Taiwan."
To watch the interview in full, visit the Wilson Center website.
Definitive US commitment to Taiwan
In May, after a summit in Tokyo between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, Biden was asked if the US would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack.
Biden didn't hesitate. "Yes, that's the commitment we made." It was a controversial remark that prompted intensive discussion among political observers. It was also the clear-cut statement that Abe told me he wanted to hear.
Concessions or Deterrence?
The former Japanese leader had an enormous influence on Japan's security policy during his tenure in office, and even after he resigned. His view that peace cannot be won through concessions but through deterrence alone has been sharply reinforced in Japan and around the world by the invasion of Ukraine.
The Japanese government is now making plans to substantially increase its defense budget, just as Germany has done. Elsewhere around the world, the trend is also toward deterrence.
But for Japan, this strategy comes with risks of its own. A sudden defense buildup could set off an arms race with China and escalate tensions between the two Asian powers.
The path forward is fraught, with no easy answers.