Abe and Japan’s regional diplomacy

Author: Ben Ascione, ANU

As Japan heads to its upper house election on 21 July, a victory for the Shinzō Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), reinforcing its December 2012 lower house election win, looks likely.

It is widely feared, particularly in China and South Korea, that such an outcome will give Prime Minister Abe leverage to implement his desired policies. 

Many in China and South Korea fear that Abe will roll back Japan’s peaceful post-war security posture by amending Article 9 of the Constitution, which forswears the use of military force. Yet, in spite of Abe’s personal convictions, the danger that a strengthened post-election Abe government will be able to overcome the three hurdles necessary to amend Article 9 — a two-thirds majority vote in each house of parliament followed by a simple majority in a national referendum — is relatively low. The LDP has close to two-thirds in the lower house after it swept the December 2012 election. However, only half of the seats of the upper house are up for re-election, so even if the LDP makes significant gains as predicted, it is extremely unlikely it will be able to boost its seats up to a two-thirds majority.

Moreover, LDP electoral gains should not be interpreted as a mandate for Abe’s foreign policy vision but rather weariness with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and public support for Abenomics and his economic policy strategies. Securing a simple majority in a national referendum to amend Article 9 is likely to prove tough unless the public loses faith in the credibility of the US–Japan alliance vis-à-vis China and North Korea. At present public sentiment toward the US is strong. The Japanese Cabinet Office’s annual foreign policy survey showed that a record 84.5 per cent of respondents indicated an affinity for the US. The US military was also able to garner much goodwill through its cooperation with the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the aftermath of the 11 March triple disaster through Operation Tomodachi.

A possible alternative to Article 9 amendment is reinterpretation. This would theoretically allow for one of Abe’s stated aims: collective self-defence. The current individual self-defence interpretation allows for an exclusively defence-oriented defence policy. Japan is supposed to only maintain armaments at the minimum necessary level for self-defence. Possession of offensive power projection capabilities and collective defence actions — such as coming to the support of an ally’s ship under attack or shooting down a North Korean missile heading toward a third country — are prohibited. The key actor to watch regarding interpretation is the Cabinet Legislation Bureau; Abe would need to persuade these guardians of Article 9 to make the shift.

Another fear emanating out of China and South Korea is that a resurgent Japanese economy might itself lead to increased Japanese military spending. South Korean Finance Minister Hyun Oh-seok even compared the risk Abenomics posed to his country with risks posed by North Korea. The release of Japan’s 2013 defence white paper, which noted a defence spending increase, provoked similar fears. But the increases — 0.8 per cent to ¥4.68 trillion (US$52 billion) as well as the Coast Guard budget going up by 1.9 per cent to ¥176.5 billion (US$2.1 billion) — at this stage are more symbolic than anything else. Japan’s high public debt, its ageing population’s disinclination toward tax hikes and demands for continued health and pension welfare spending, keeping defence spending under 1 per cent of GDP in the spirit of Article 9, and the underwhelming follow through on Abenomics’ third arrow of structural reform to facilitate growth, make concerns about Japan’s defence budget appear overblown.

Going forward there are four main dangers to Japan’s relations with its regional neighbours under the Abe government.

First, the rhetoric and symbolic actions of the Abe administration, even if not altering the substance of the day-to-day operations of the SDF, are perceived in Beijing and Seoul to have real negative effects in Japan’s relations with these key neighbours. It was hoped that when new leaders came into office in China, Japan and South Korea almost simultaneously at the end of last year, the focus of Japan’s relations with these neighbours would shift away from an excessively narrow focus on history and territorial disputes and toward cooperation. The Abe administration’s rhetoric has soured the mood and whipped up a storm of anti-Japanese sentiment. Abe’s flip-flop on revising the Japanese government’s position on the comfort women issue and the question of Japan’s wartime culpability; his statements that he regretted not visiting Yasukuni during his first stint as prime minister and that the definition of ‘aggression’ has yet to be agreed upon by academics; and an inopportune photo of Abe sitting in an SDF plane emblazoned with the number ‘731’ (harking back to Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army which conducted lethal chemical and biological warfare experiments on Chinese citizens), all have been highly damaging. The Abe government would be wise to keep its counsel on these sensitive matters and prevent friction from hindering cooperation in other areas.

Second, Abe may seek to put in place stepping stones that would lower the obstacles to achieving rearmament in the future. He has debated the idea of amending Article 96 of the Constitution to lower the barrier for constitutional reform to a simple majority in both houses of parliament rather than a two-thirds majority. Another danger sign would be if Abe were to replace key personnel within the Cabinet Legislation Bureau in order to smooth the way for reinterpreting Article 9.

Third, friction within the US–Japan alliance needs to be avoided given that a major loss of confidence would prompt the Japanese public to reconsider its current security strategy of reliance on the United States. Issues such as the over-concentration of US military forces in Okinawa, the relocation of the Futenma Marine Airbase, and the US living up to its security commitments as per the US–Japan Security Treaty in disputed territories such as the Senkaku Islands require careful handling.

Finally, there is the risk that Japanese cooperation with India, Australia and ASEAN countries will be interpreted by China as encircling behaviour. While these countries should deepen cooperation with Japan, improve confidence building and promote transparency, they should also encourage the Abe government to engage with China in positive ways.

As Japan continues to increase its security roles and seeks to contribute to regional and global peace, it must do so in a way that is based on liberal internationalist and not nationalist considerations and is sensitive to the concerns of its two important neighbours, China and South Korea.

Ben Ascione is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australia National University, an associate researcher at the Japan Center for International Exchange, and an associate editor at the EAF Japan and North Korea desks.