Abe and a Japanese National Security Council

Author: Toshiya Takahashi, ANU

On 7 June, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved legislation to create a National Security Council (NSC), which will replace the existing Security Council. The bill is expected to pass the Diet this year, and is a revival of a proposal Abe made during his first premiership. The NSC will give a more centralised role to the Cabinet Office in national security and crisis management. Abe believes that centralised decision-making by the NSC would strengthen Japan’s national security and has used the US national security system as a model for reform, even though Japan maintains a parliamentary system.

The 2013 bill makes two major changes. First, it strengthens the role of the prime minister and the Cabinet Office in national security policy-making by establishing a sub-committee of the prime minister, the chief cabinet secretary, the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of defence to consider issues of national security and defence. The equivalent subcommittee in the current Security Council has nine ministers, and the reduced membership is intended to facilitate prompt decision-making in national security and crisis management. The prime minister will be able to assign the committee any issue relating to national security and crisis management that he or she considers important. The 2013 bill also creates a new position, national security advisor, and establishes a secretariat for the council. The Security Council had no permanent secretariat, and establishing one will ensure the NSC is independent from related ministries.

On the other hand, some features of the Security Council remain: a nine-minister committee will still provide advice on defence and national security issues, and when the four-member subcommittee considers basic defence policy, such as the National Defense Program Outline, other ministers will be able to join in on discussions. Abe wants to ensure that the NSC will be able to make prompt decisions when necessary, but also that it properly deliberates long-term policy.

The second objective is to make the NSC the ‘headquarters’ for intelligence on national security and crisis management. Japan’s intelligence system has traditionally been decentralised. Different agencies are involved and ministries often do not share information with each other. The designation of the NSC as intelligence ‘headquarters’ provides a solution because the NSC will be able to pick and choose what information is needed and order other ministries and administrative institutions to furnish intelligence.

The NSC is designed to contribute to prompt decision-making and facilitate information gathering for national security and crisis management. But will it succeed?

It is still unclear whether the NSC will become a central decision-making body or remain just an advisory institution. The four-minister committee will make final decisions, but these decisions may largely rely on information and policy recommendations from the ministries in Japan’s parliamentary system. The new bill does not prescribe the functions of the national security advisor and the chief of the secretariat and it is still unclear how power will be shared between them. Finally, the NSC will include existing members of the Cabinet Office such as the assistant chief cabinet secretary and the special advisor to the prime minister, while leaving out the deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis. This means there is still institutional overlap, which may make it difficult for the NSC to make decisions quickly. NSC’s power to order information would be another area of concern in relation to related ministries and the protection of civil liberties.

The 2013 bill envisages remarkable change in Japan’s national security policy-making institutions. But Japan’s bureaucratic and organisational culture should be kept in mind. Most officials in the NSC are expected to come from existing ministries. When Japan tried to centralise the Cabinet Office, key officials found it difficult to work independently from their ‘original’ ministries. The NSC will face the same problems and needs its bureaucrats to be independent to be successful. The increased membership of the Cabinet Office may prevent the prompt decision-making that the bill seeks. In addition, the 2013 bill will not develop human resources for national security and crisis management. Institutions cannot work without relevant human resources. The NSC needs people who have been properly trained and understand security policy to work effectively, but Japan lacks institutions to provide this training.

For this purpose, Japan has to consider the development of ‘national security communities’ in which governmental and non-governmental security experts would be well versed in the issues of national security. Human resources for national security institutions would be nurtured by them. The establishment of national security communities would contribute to overcoming ministerial sectionalism within government and divided opinions on national security in Japanese politics. An effort to develop security communities requires wider institutional change than in the 2013 bill, but is a necessary step for Japan.

Toshiya Takahashi is a PhD candidate at the National Security College, Australian National University.

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  • Toshiya Takahashi

    I used the term the Cabinet Office here to denote Shusho Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office).
    Japan’s NSC is expected to be under the Cabinet Secretary.