Beijing is likely to have been stunned by the global mourning and outpouring of posthumous support for Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe , assassinated earlier this month while making a stump speech. Outside China, Abe has been credited for taking on a leadership role in the Indo-Pacific amid trenchant US-China sparring. But within the country, many considered the late Japanese leader to be a leading anti-China voice, because of his stated affinity for Taiwan and pro-US stance. What made Abe stand out was his vision and ability to help the world understand the need for a collective approach to counter an increasingly authoritarian, inward-looking China, while still advocating diplomatic engagement with it when others, including the US, would hesitate to do so. It is regrettable that Abe’s nuanced, measured approach on Beijing and his boldness to act – particularly in steering bilateral ties clear of any premature confrontation over the two nations’ controversial history and territorial issues – have not been fully appreciated in China. Beijing protests after Taiwanese vice-president attends Abe’s funeral Anti-Japanese vitriol erupted on the heavily censored Chinese social media sites, with users gloating over Abe’s tragic death. Although Beijing quickly denied its role behind the toxic nationalist sentiment, the viral anti-Abe comments grabbed global headlines and eclipsed President Xi Jinping’s condolence message that acknowledged the Japanese leader’s “positive contributions” to bilateral ties. In October 2006, Abe took many by surprise when he chose China as the destination for his first official trip abroad as a newly elected prime minister. It was a risky move as bilateral ties were at a historical low, just months after massive anti-Japanese demonstrations across China . Although the rapprochement was short-lived, just like Abe’s first stint as prime minister, the trip was hailed by China as “a turning point” in fraught bilateral relations. Abe thereafter made two more trips to China, in 2014 to attend the Apec summit in Beijing and then for the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou. Both visits were aimed at helping to avert the further deterioration of bilateral ties, following another round of larger, violent anti-Japanese protests in 2012 over Tokyo’s nationalisation of the disputed Senkaku islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyus. But he would continue to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine , where fallen Japanese including convicted war criminals are honoured, with his 2013 visit plunging bilateral ties deeper into crisis. Beijing and Seoul furious at Shinzo Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine Abe’s ties with Beijing peaked in 2018 during his second state visit to China, which came at the height of a US-China trade war under former US president Donald Trump. The Japanese leader, labelled an “unwelcome person” by Chinese officials just five years ago, was treated with unusual hospitality in Beijing, following his comments on the possibility of Japan’s cooperation on Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative . As China’s ties with the US and other Western powers continue to deteriorate, the important role Abe has played over the years to keep Sino-Japanese relations on track despite mutual hostility and mistrust cannot be overstated. His willingness and ability to maintain stable relations with China has effectively helped prevent their ties drifting towards the Thucydides trap of confrontation between a rising Beijing and established powers like the US and Japan. Despite Beijing’s fears about Tokyo’s slide into militarism under Abe, he will be sorely missed, as Sino-Japanese ties look set for greater uncertainty amid growing negative perceptions of China in Japan.