Leader and Canada-Japan Bridge-Builder

Canada-Japan relations continue to deepen, and the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a crucial partner in that process. One prime example was his vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), with Canada and Japan issuing a joint statement on strategies that would benefit the Indo-Pacific region in May 2020. 

Those strategies included supporting the rule of law, peacekeeping operations and peace building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, health security and responding to COVID-19, energy security, free trade promotion and trade agreement implementation such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and environmental and climate change cooperation.

His legacy in Canada-Japan relations is not limited to the FOIP. With the withdrawal of the United States from the original TPP in January 2017, it was Prime Minister Abe—working with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other TPP partners—who eventually pushed the CPTPP forward. This new partnership aims to protect intellectual property rights, expand market access, harmonise labor and environmental standards and limit the role of state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

These were and still are seen as critical to ensuring that the market continues to be the final arbiter of trade rather than SOEs. 

While the powerful connection between the two nations remains intact, the former prime minister’s death on July 8 at the hands of a lone gunman marks the loss of a consequential partner in Canada-Japan relations. 

This matters to Canada on three levels.

First, having a strong partner that recognizes the significance of Canada-Japan relations helps shape the engagement process. For example, Prime Minister Abe stressed that a rules-based order was critical to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. To achieve that, he envisioned strong partnerships with like-minded countries such as Canada to focus on how each country’s comparative advantages can bring stability to the region. 

Second, Abe’s vision for Canada-Japan cooperation was not just centered on business and trade. He also wanted to ensure that Canada was a proactive contributor to peace, stability and institution building within the region.

The CPTPP is a good example of that proactive role. The partnership is meant to shape the trade and standard setting in the region to ensure that market forces determine competition, market access and the rules of the road for trade. 

Abe also used his role as the G-20 host to put forward his Data Free Flow with Trust initiative. Working with like-minded countries like Canada, he envisioned a rules-based order in shaping the regulatory environment for the digital economy and AI to protect individual privacy and positively shape how governments structure their societies through these technologies. This initiative is now entering the implementation stage.

Just as crucially, he also advocated for Canada to be an energy and critical minerals superpower supplier based on Canada’s comparative advantages and shared political values. 

At the third level, Abe’s clarity about the paucity of institutions within the Indo-Pacific region and the challenges and opportunities associated with China’s rise were keys and can continue to be pivotal in shaping Canada’s thinking about the Indo-Pacific region and China.

Despite his concerns about China’s rise, Abe was the motivational force in resurrecting Sino-Japanese relations after the 2012 nationalization of the Senkaku Islands. He understood that peace, stability and economic prosperity in the Indo-Pacific meant that Japan and like-minded countries needed to work with China but at the same time shape its behavior.

His engagement with China was a non-zero-sum approach and should be a lesson on how Canada not only engages with China but the broader region as well. Abe’s inclusive approach to building shared interests continues to be the driving force behind the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. 

Similarly, Abe reached out to South Korea and China to deal with the past. Working with Seoul in 2015, Japan and South Korea produced the Comfort Women Agreement. It was meant to push relations forward based on a shared understanding of historical events. Abe also tried to engage with his Chinese counterparts in his 2015 Cabinet Statement, which recognized Japan’s imperial past, as did the committee he charged to examine history but also ponder the necessity of building future-oriented relations.

His death will be mourned in Japan and in the Canadian context as well. His vision for the region, his commitment to multilayered, multinational partnerships that contribute to building peace and stability in the region, his commitment to enhancing trade and market access and to fostering development through infrastructure connectivity programs were and continue to be critical foundational pillars to building a Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.

These resonate deeply with Canadian values and national interests. They demonstrate that the Canada-Japan partnership that Abe contributed to was not just based on shared interests but a sense that Canada-Japan relations are based on collective values, a commitment to democracy and human rights, development and investing in international institutions to secure peace, prosperity and stability.

Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a senior fellow at the MacDonald Laurier Institute, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs

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