Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking approval for legislation that would permit Tokyo to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces (the SDF, Japan’s military in all but name) overseas and strengthen ties with the U.S. military and American allies.
Supporters welcome these “bold” measures, after what they consider decades of cowardly pacifism. Opponents see the first steps on the road to militarism. Reality is far less exciting.
First, there is little that is dramatic. Japan, under U.S. pressure, established the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the 1950s and has continued to invest in them. From then on, Article 9 lingered as a zombie, stripped of its essence, as an idealistic but unrealistic remnant of another age.
The notion that the SDF was solely for “defense” was a useful fig leaf to legitimize the military. But the boundaries between defense, rational preemption, and aggression are so fluid as to defy legally binding criteria. From Day 1, the SDF could have been used for any scenario if the government and public wanted it so and the forces had the requisite capabilities.
The claim that Abe will tie Japan to America’s perceived war-mongering actions is equally invalid. Japan, based on the will of its elected representatives, sides with the United States in a very unequal partnership. If Japanese elect Diet members who will vote to terminate the relationship with America, U.S. bases in Japan would be shut down, as they were after the Philippines (1992) and France (1966) asked the Americans to leave.
The legislation should improve SDF-U.S. interoperability. If – and there are many ifs – this turns out to be true, it will not automatically embroil Japan in all U.S. conflicts. Canada is, by far, Washington’s closest military partner, yet it abstained from both the Vietnam and Second Iraq Wars.
Second, Japan lacks the spare capacity given its preoccupation with China, North Korea, and (much) less Russia. Belgium, with no enemies nearby, could station its entire military in the Persian Gulf. Japan cannot. Even if Abe gets everything he wants from the Diet, the bulk of the SDF will remain stationed in and around the homeland.
Third, Japanese voters care more about economics, giving Abe some leeway in defense and foreign affairs. Nevertheless, Japanese citizens remain wedded to pacifism, unlike their British, French, or American counterparts. Japanese politics put severe restraints on having a muscular posture. Even with Abe at the elm, Japan won’t morph rapidly, or slowly, into Canada, whose warriors fight ISIS and engaged the Taliban in Afghanistan (and few would consider Canada to top the bellicosity scale).
Fourth, legislating and acting are different. National security legislation sets a framework which turns out to be highly flexible in emergencies. In the United Kingdom and United States, polities anchored in the rule of law, the two World Wars, the Cold War, the “War on Terror,” and Iraq saw laws and constitutional strictures ignored or stretched beyond their original intent. The same could happen in Japan, regardless of which laws are on the books, if a Sino-American War starts, if North Korea fires nuclear missiles (assuming they work), or if the Saudi oil fields are destroyed and/or maritime choke points and pipelines for oil shipments are blocked.
Last but not least, the prime minister’s signature policy is a massive quantitative easing (Abenomics). Since Abe’s return to the Kantei (Japan’s 10 Downing Street), the yen has lost at least 25 percent of its value (depending on indices). The SDF purchases some foreign (mostly U.S.) equipment and incurs other non-yen expenses. The Foreign Ministry’s overseas costs are consequential since it operates embassies and consulates abroad. JICA (the foreign aid organization) pays salaries to locals and procures supplies outside the country. Consequently, despite a small yen-denominated jump, the prime minister has driven down the purchasing power of the national security departments. There is no indication that either the Ministry of Finance or the Japanese Diet are about to authorize a special allocation to compensate them for what amounts to budget cuts.
Japanese security policy has evolved in the past two decades. But we should take at face value neither the proclamations of the prime minister’s fan club nor those of his detractors. Moderation, snail-like gradualism, and reliance on the United States remain the core tenets of Japanese strategy. Finally, to paraphrase French novelist Jean d’Ormesson, Abe is a man “born looking backwards” where “the past counts more than the future.” As we see with his efforts to amend the Constitution, some of his energy is wasted on quixotic windmill chases that won’t make Japan militarily stronger.
Unless there is a major upheaval in the region – such as a conflagration between China and the American Alliance – Japan is unlikely to stray far from the path it has long followed.
Robert Dujarric is Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan ([email protected], Twitter: @robertdujarric).