Abe’s defence ambitions alarm region

Author: Gui Yongtao, Peking University

The move by Shinzo Abe’s administration toward lifting the ban on the exercise of the right to collective self-defence is not driven by the imperatives of the US-Japan alliance, nor by Japan’s internationalist aspirations to contribute more to global peace. It is, rather, a central component of Prime Minister Abe’s nationalist agenda on security affairs.

Supporters of the alliance in the US over the years have encouraged Japan to lift the prohibition on collective self-defence. But in recent years the US has achieved its goal of raising alliance efficiency through enhanced operational integration between the two forces irrespective of Japan’s internal discussion on collective self-defence.

Under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan used ad hoc legislation, rather than changing the interpretation of its constitution, to justify the deployment of its Self-Defense Forces to perform rear-area logistical support and non-combat activities in the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The prohibition on collective self-defence, therefore, has not been a real impediment to the actual operations of the alliance. This issue has become even less important for the US because of the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and the pending withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What Abe really intends to do is to give Japan a more muscular military posture and allow greater scope of action for its defence forces. It is part of his long-held ambition to break away from the postwar system that restricts Japan’s military role. This naturally causes wariness among Japan’s neighbours, and should also be alarming to Washington, the architect and maintainer of that system.

Abe is likely to push his agenda by exploiting tensions between Japan and its neighbours. At present the Japanese public remains divided on whether to change the constitutional interpretation of collective self-defence. Within the Japanese government there are also cautious voices holding back Abe’s agenda. Facing these obstacles, Abe may be tempted to exaggerate external threats so as to justify his policy and prevail in domestic debates. The last time Abe attempted to reinterpret the constitution he played up the North Korean threat, this time it’s the China threat.

One may argue that Japan is merely ‘normalising’ its foreign and security policies. But China and South Korea are unlikely to accept a Japan that expands its military role without coming to terms with its history of aggression and colonialism. In other words, a Japan with a ‘normal’ military posture but ‘abnormal’ views of history and international morality would only deepen mistrust among the countries of Northeast Asia.

Washington is not unaware of the problems arising from Abe’s political ambitions. American officials have in various ways warned about Abe’s nationalist statements on history, which would jeopardise security co-operation between Japan and South Korea, two US allies in the region, and inflame relations with China.

The US also takes a divergent view from Japan on collective self-defence, per se. While Abe’s advisory panel tasked with reconsidering the legal basis for collective self-defence and other security matters clearly stated that the purpose of their study was to address the challenges posed by growing tension in Japan’s surrounding areas, the US sees the issue from a different perspective. When asked about her attitude on this question, the new US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, replied that she hoped Japan would play a more active role in the international community, but the only example she gave for this was Japan’s participation in international peacekeeping operations.

The gap between Japanese and American views seems more pronounced when it comes to their threat perceptions in the region. Japan names China as a top threat to its national security, while the US sees North Korea as its immediate security concern. Talking about America’s future in Asia, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that American and Chinese interests can and should be more closely aligned on many major challenges, which is most evident in confronting the North Korean threat.

As such, Japan’s security policy agenda under the Abe administration is not only alarming to its neighbours, it also contradicts US security interests in the region. Abe is misreading regional trends and creating new obstacles to building trust.

Gui Yongtao is Associate Professor at the School of International Studies and Assistant President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University.

A longer version of this article was published on Global Asia