Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Japan's Foreign and Defense Policy Under Abe, Part I

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe addresses the media on July 22 after his party's success in Upper House elections.

One of the most interesting things in Asia right now is the transformation that’s underway in Japan’s foreign and defense policy. Over the last few decades, Japan has been viewed through the lens of its economy. It’s usually seen as an important actor in the world because of the size and productivity of its economy. Additionally, because of constitutional constraints and the rather large security umbrella of the United States, Japan has prioritized economic success over security affairs.

All of the above mostly holds true today. Currently, Japan has heft in the international arena largely because it has the third largest economy in the world, ranking behind only the U.S. and China. And Japan still probably prioritizes its economic welfare and interests. Reviving Japan’s sluggish, low-growth economy is job one for the Abe government.

And toward that end, as Japan expert Sheila Smith points out, in the short time he’s been back in the Prime Ministerial seat, Shinzo Abe has been very active on the economic front.

He has sought to marry his economic policy goals with his diplomacy. Nowhere is this more important than in Southeast Asia where Japan has long had deep economic ties. Abe has made repeated visits there since he came back into office. Economic diplomacy was also at the top of his agenda when he visited Washington in February to announce Japan’s interest in joining TPP. In Russia and the Middle East, Abe argued for new economic and diplomatic cooperation, including many initiatives related to energy. With President Putin, Abe sought to reopen discussions on the disputed Northern Territories while announcing Japan’s interest in a long-term deal over LNG and oil. In the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Japan’s prime minister turned his attention to nuclear deals, oil and gas, and the potential for expanding Japanese medical services.
So what's changed? Where is the transformation?

It is begins with these observations: Japanese officials are keenly aware that their county is located in an increasingly volatile and dangerous region and are concerned about the viability of America’s security commitments to Japan. Specifically, China looks primed to dominate the region, and has been increasingly aggressive in the South and East China Seas. North Korea is an unpredictable and brazen state, one prone to lashing out at its neighbors, and led by a very young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un. Moreover, America’s still-flagging economy and a resurgent streak of isolationism create serious questions: Can Tokyo continue to count on Washington to have Japan’s back in a security crisis? Does the U.S. have the will and resources to do so over the long-term?

It is in this context that, under the Abe government, Japan is now seeking to beef up its security and loosen the existing restrictions on how it can defend itself. Some analysts have attributed this to Abe’s hawkish personal philosophy. Perhaps, but it’s also rational response to security exigencies that Japan perceives. Regardless, the changes in foreign and defense policy are real and charting a new course for Japan’s foreign affairs. Let’s take a closer look at them.

1.       Defense spending

Japan will add bump up its defense budget by three percent in 2014, the biggest increase in 22 years. Yes, while it is true that quite a bit of the increase will go to paying salaries that were slashed after the tsunami, Japan does have actual military plans with the funds. In particular, as noted by Walter Russell Mead, Japan “plans to enhance surveillance, namely by adding drones to its forces and basing more troops in the South China Sea area, and maintain a marine defense force that can be deployed to defend or retake far-flung islands.”
2.       New defense unveilings and acquisitions

Japan has been busy enhancing its military capabilities. Japan is expected to roll out F-35 fighter jet. And last month, Japan unveiled the Izumo, an enormous helicopter carrier. It’s Japan’s largest warship in 70 years. Reports indicate that the Izumo will be used in "national defense — particularly in anti-submarine warfare and border-area surveillance missions — and to bolster the nation's ability to transport personnel and supplies in response to large-scale natural disasters, like the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.” The only wrinkle is that it won’t be an operational part of the Japan’s Self-Defense Fleet until 2015.

Japan might also add the Osprey, “a tilt-rotor aircraft that can fly like a helicopter or a conventional fixed-wing airplane”, and the Global Hawk drone, “which is one of the most advanced in the world and would provide Japan with the capability of carrying out longer missions than its manned counterparts”.

3.       More active and assertive presence in the East China Sea

On September 11, 2012, Japan took control over three of the five islands in the Senkaku/Diaoyus/Tiaoyutai chain, which are contested by both China and Taiwan. Since that act, relations between China and Japan have been strained and tense. Eschewing its typically passive and pacific stance on national security issues, Japan has engaged in tit-for-tat shows of force in the East China Sea with China, sending in patrols and fighter jets to surveil and ward off Chinese advances (ships, planes, drones) in the area. And these are ongoing events, with the latest round of confrontations occurring this week. Upping the ante even further, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has stated that Tokyo might station workers on the islands, a proposal that has, predictably, drawn the ire of China.

4.       External balancing

Of course, Japan has good, strong economic, military, and diplomatic relations with the U.S., and Japan benefits greatly from them. On national security matters, Japan and America routinely conduct joint military exercises and trainings, hold all sorts of foreign policy and defense meetings, share intelligence, and much more. In fact, Japan can take some comfort in the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed in 1960, which calls for any attack against Japan or U.S. on Japanese territory to be met with a joint—though not necessarily equal or similar—response to the danger or threat. Additionally, Japan houses some 40,000 American soldiers, including significant U.S. military installations on Okinawa, who help keep Japan safe and maintain peace in the neighborhood.

But given Tokyo's reservations about America's long-term commitment to Japan, it isn’t content with just its American ally as a bulwark against regional threats. Not surprisingly, so as to broaden the coalition of local countries working to guard against China’s bullying and regional dominance, among other things, Japan has spent considerable time cultivating good ties with Asian states, especially those in south and southeast Asia. Indeed, “since returning to office late last year, Abe has visited 16 countries, 7 of them ASEAN members.” His efforts have resulted in trade deals, investment opportunities, and, some have speculated, a degree acceptance of Japan’s new-found assertiveness in East Asia. Tokyo, in particular, has aggressively reached out to Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries involved in their own waterway and territorial disputes with China. It’s a smart move, taking advantage similarly disaffected countries in the region, to further Japan’s national security interests.  

5.       Constitutional changes

It’s been widely reported that Prime Minister Abe seeks a number of constitutional changes for Japan. These changes include turning the country’s Self Defense Forces into a National Defense Force, legitimizing the right to participate in collective defense mechanisms, such as the Japan-U.S. alliance, and, most prominently, revising Article 9, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” In short, Abe wants Japan to possess the capabilities and expressed constitutional right to defend itself by using military force, if necessary.

In part two of this blog post, I will discuss the implications of Japan’s foreign and defense policy, paying particular attention how both impact America's goals and interests in Asia.

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