RIPS’ Eye, October 26, 2018
Prime Minister Abe’s Mandate:
A Rapidly Transitioning World and how Japan Needs to Respond
Tosh Minohara, Ph.D.
Professor, Graduate School of Law, Kobe University
As many had predicted, Abe Shinzō soundly defeated his LDP rival and secured his third and final term as prime minister. If he successfully serves out his term, he will have become the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history. That beings said, there will be many challenges that he will need to face in the coming three years, particularly in the realm of national security.
Japan seems to be one of only a handful American allies that remains relatively aloof to the drastic changes that are manifesting themselves throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Although the 2018 Defense White Paper clearly recognizes the existential threats posed to Japan, the nation’s overall response is still relatively mild and muted. The chief pillar of Japan’s security policy is steadfastly grounded to the US-Japan alliance. Despite a few upgrades in military hardware such as the purchase of the “Aegis Ashore” system and the forward deployment of rapid reaction forces, the stark reality is that Japan’s defense budget remains dwarfed by China’s. It also is not feasible for Japan to keep pace with the rapid modernization and advanced weaponry procurements by China.
The traditional timidity, or outright lack of awareness, of Japanese public opinion toward security issues also serves as a significant roadblock in Japan’s inability to properly react to the rapidly changing security environment. Japan has never truly felt the cost, nor pain, of maintaining regional peace in the postwar era as financial burden does not equate with personal sacrifice. Thus like the air that we breathe, peace is perceived to be the norm, always abundant and free. But in reality, peace is maintained and this naturally requires certain sacrifices.
Perhaps the strength and confidence in the US-Japan alliance are working against Japan in this regard; it has yet to formulate a contingency plan in the event that the alliance shows sign of fatigue. Therefore, despite a few recent revisions to Japan’s defense and security laws, the constitution remains exactly as it was written when it was promulgated in 1946. The world has changed considerably over span exceeding seven decades, yet a large portion of the Japanese turn a blind eye to the new realities.
The nearly six-year long tenure of the Abe Shinzo cabinet has brought with it long sought political stability to Japan. The ruling LDP has the experience to rule Japan domestically yet when it comes down to security issues, it has consistently avoided making the truly difficult and politically costly policy decisions. This is quite peculiar considering not only Japan’s geostrategic location surrounded by not-so-friendly nations, but also its economic size, and its military capabilities. Clearly, Japan’s security identity has not changed nearly enough to keep pace with the rapidly changing security environment. To this day, it remains one of only a few advanced democracies that has maintained zero battle casualties since the end of the Second World War; in essence it has yet to pay the ultimate price for peace.
Furthermore, Japan also remains an outlier in its relations with the US. Prime Minister Abe has never publicly criticized President Trump, and espouses his personal friendship with the US president as being an asset. This is an interesting phenomenon in that for most other US allies, being perceived personally close to Trump is a political liability. The reason why the Japanese public is more accommodating can be debated, but it most certainly stems from a combination of internal and external factors. One could also argue that many Japanese fail to comprehend the innate qualities, or more precisely the deficiencies, of the current president. As a consequence, Japan’s trajectory is distinctively different from that of large portion of Europe which possesses little faith in Trump.
Although Japan has had varying degrees with difficulties with North Korea and Russia, the largest security threat to Japan remains to be China. Despite this, the current government’s policy seems to be one which is based on a false assumption: that China is a benevolent nation that wants to partner with Japan in promoting regional prosperity and stability. But nations with such aspirations do not build military bases on artificial landfill islands, nor do they engage in cyber-attacks, and most certainly do not encroach upon sovereign territorial waters.
Unfortunately, Japan is currently so economically dependent on China, whether it be markets or tourists, it has very little policy choices on hand. The inherent paradox of course is that although Japan wants to preserve the status quo, China’s national raison d’etre is to alter the status quo, thus an intrinsic tension arises. Considering that China possesses considerable leverage over Japan, it will prioritize the long-game and take its time to slowly chip away at Japan’s influence and interests in the region, including but not limited to the Senkakus. After all, as the Chinese proverb says, there cannot be “two tigers on top of one mountain.” It is difficult to deny that the ultimate goal of China is to dismantle the US-Japan alliance and force Japanese acquiescence of Chinese hegemony over the region.
Then how should Japan counter this threat? One way would be to show more resolve by standing up to Chinese aggression; joint naval exercises in the South China Sea are vital but also merely symbolic. Working to lessen Chinese economic leverage over Japan would be a strategically prudent move. Moreover, countering Chinese rhetoric by clearly defining the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) would be crucial in buoying and rallying the nations in the region that view China as an antagonistic power. Assuaging ruffled feathers between Australia and India to bolster the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (QUAD) would also be an important role that Japan could play. In addition, Japan should actively pursue the further expansion of the Comprehensive Transpacific Partnership (CTPP) while being careful not to concede too much to the US in the ongoing bilateral trade negotiations as it would surely disincentivize America’s future participation in this vital free trade agreement.
But the most important step that Prime Minister Abe should take in his final push is to revise Japan’s constitution, especially as it relates to Article 9. This section of the constitution has not stood the test of time very well. If the constitution is to remain legitimate, it must not only reflect the realities but allow a nation to maintain its security and viability. Moreover, this much needed revision will prompt the Japanese public to reexamine and reshape the nation’s security identity. Japan is a democracy. If it is going to change, the public will definitely need to come onboard. This is undoubtedly the most important mandate for Abe and what will ultimately determine his legacy as Japan’s greatest postwar leader.