Since assuming office in December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has advanced an ambitious domestic and foreign policy to boost economic growth and remake Japanese defense policy. In a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, particular attention has been placed on Abe’s controversial security policy, which has raised in some quarters concerns about Japan’s returning militarism. The recent Islamic State hostage crisis, which ended recently with the brutal killing of two Japanese citizens, has brought Japanese security and defense policy into even sharper focus. Will Japan continue to look to expand the role of the Self Defense Forces (SDF)?
Following last July’s efforts at reinterpreting the Constitution to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense, Abe and his Cabinet have mapped out an action plan with three main components: enacting a national security law needed for Japan to engage in collective self-defense, requesting a record budget for defense spending in fiscal 2015, and revising the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines.
Under the reinterpreted Constitution, Japan is permitted to deploy the SDF to aid countries with close ties if three conditions are met: 1) an armed attack on the foreign country threatens Japan’s survival or raises clear dangers to the rights of Japanese citizens; 2) there is no other means than the use of force to protect Japan and its citizens; and 3) the use of force should be confined to the minimum necessary. Based on the new interpretation, on January 10, the Japanese government unveiled an outline of security legislation that aimed to enact a law authorizing the SDF to support friendly nations in the event of international conflict. Specifically, the envisioned law will define situations in which Japan can exercise the right of collective self-defense, replacing a current law that limits incidents to areas surrounding Japan. Most likely, the law would be used in an emergency on the Korean Peninsula. It will also authorize the SDF to support allied foreign militaries other than U.S. forces, contingent upon an international conflict. In arguable contingencies that do not constitute a “full-fledged military attack” on Japan, the Japanese government might dispatch the SDF with Cabinet approval.
In January, the Cabinet approved a record general budget request of ¥96.34 trillion for fiscal 2015. This included a record defense budget request of ¥4.98 trillion. Whether the increase of the defense budget is in response to ongoing tensions with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, or is a general boost of the SDF in the name of collective self-defense, the spending boost underscores the changes to Japan’s security and defense policies under Abe.
Meanwhile, preparations for an envisioned U.S.-Japan summit are underway. Abe is set to visit the United States in the first half of 2015 to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama; a U.S.-Japan joint document is likely to be created to outline the two countries’ intent to expand their alliance. The summit is expected to focus on three elements. First, to counter China’s magnified criticism of Japan over historical issues in the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the two countries will stress their principal roles in building the postwar regional order, and confirm that Japan has followed a pacifist path with a goal of promoting global peace and stability. Second, the two leaders will exchange talks on regional security challenges, including China’s growing maritime activities and North Korea’s nuclear program, and Obama may call on Tokyo to improve its relationship with Seoul. Most importantly, the two countries will work on revising the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines. The revision will correspond to Japan’s “efforts for the defense of its territory and people and the policy of ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace,’” as stated in the interim report of the U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation released in October 2014. In other words, the bilateral military cooperation is set to remove geographical limits entirely from the defense partnership, further expanding the scope of their bilateral military operations from “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” as specified in their first revision of the defense guidelines in 1997, to a global capacity.
Gaining Momentum After the Hostage Crisis
With the Islamic State hostage crisis ending with the loss of two Japanese hostages, some observers suspect that Abe has been handed an opportunity to push ahead with his long-held goal of revamping Japanese security and defense policy. Indeed, in the aftermath of the hostage events, Abe has been framing his “proactive pacifism” to fit a specific purpose – “to realize a world without terrorism.” Besides attempting to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in planned security bills, Abe aims at granting the SDF a mandate to evacuate Japanese citizens overseas during emergencies with the consent of foreign nations, and would consider the possibility of “using arms to eliminate danger and to rescue” Japanese workers with non-governmental organizations around the globe. He has also called for a constitutional change to protect the lives and assets of Japanese citizens. In the Upper House Budget Committee on February 2, Abe stated that “the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has already presented a draft amendment to Article 9,” and revising it is “to carry out our duty of protecting the lives and assets of JP citizens.” Support from the Lower House to combat terrorism can also be regarded as a boost to Abe’s ambitions of changing Japan’s security policy. On February 5, the Lower House unanimously adopted an anti-terrorism resolution in which it condemned the Islamist State group’s “inhumane and despicable terrorist acts,” declared its firm stance of “never tolerating terrorism,” and called for the Japanese government to step up humanitarian aid to nations in the Middle East and Africa as well as coordinate with the international community in the fight against terrorism.
However, with nationwide local elections due in April and the ruling bloc’s focus on passing the 2015 budget, there is a fair chance that talks on a new security law will be postponed until after the April elections. In fact, the ruling coalition – Abe’s LDP and its junior partner, Komeito – remains divided in their views on several security issues. While the LDP is pushing to allow the SDF to engage in a joint mission of mine-removal in the Persian Gulf, Komeito is concerned that the mission could drag Japan into war in the Middle East. Komeito raised similar concerns over whether to allow SDF to rescue foreign military and civilians in locations far from Japan in U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping operations. “The more the two parties discuss the matters, the more evident the gaps between them could become,” said one Japanese government official.
Meanwhile, public opinion plays its own role. Even though Abe touted his party’s victory in the Lower House elections in December 2014 as a fresh mandate for his economic policies, a Kyodo News opinion poll conducted two days after the election showed that 55.1 percent of respondents did not support Abe’s defense and security policies, as opposed to 33.6 percent said they did. The postwar pacifist sentiment persists in Japan and influences public views on the expanding role of the SDF. According to data between 2010 to 2014 by the World Values Survey, when asked about their willingness to fight for their country, only 15 percent of the Japanese people replied positively, far lower than their counterparts in neighboring countries: 63 percent in South Korea and 74.2 percent in China. Even after the Islamist State hostage crisis, the majority of Japanese citizens are not willing to engage the Middle East beyond providing nonmilitary aid. According to a Kyodo News poll released on February 7, 2015, 57.9 percent of the respondents said Japan’s support should be nonmilitary, while 16.6 percent said it should include logistical support to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group. This enduring pacifist sentiment in Japanese society means an ever-present fear among the Japanese public of being dragged into conflict, and that fear is likely to continue to act as an constraint on Abe’s security aspirations.
Emily S Chen is a graduate student in the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University with a focus on international relations.