Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to office in 2012 with a promise to change Japan. Looking at his term thus far and his efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, revise his country’s security policies, and pursue difficult economic reforms, Abe has already proven to be one of Japan’s most transformative premiers. This year, after a speech to Congress and a 70th anniversary statement marking the end of World War Two, he even successfully addressed the historical ghosts of Imperial Japan’s wrongdoings. Perhaps more than anything else, he has drawn attention for his successful effort to pass a package of security-related bills.
Abe has pursued most of his international efforts under the banner of “proactive contributions to peace.” While this slogan has become part of the discourse in Abe’s Japan, there has been little examination of whether his actions translate into contributions to peace that differ substantially from those of his predecessors, who relied primarily on various forms of financial assistance. In reviewing the prime minister’s record, it is clear that Japan has not lived up to the heightened expectations that Abe’s rhetoric has generated – except in cases involving China, when Japan’s security has been directly affected. Unless Japan makes more substantial contributions in dealing with problems in which it does not have such a direct stake, Tokyo risks disappointing the international community for not playing an international role commensurate with its international standing and capabilities.
From its inception, the Abe administration pushed the notion of Japan becoming a “Proactive Contributor to Peace.” It formally laid this out in December 2013 with its National Security Strategy (NSS):
The key of national security is to create a stable and predictable international environment, and prevent the emergence of threats. It is thus necessary for Japan to realize an international order and security environment that are desirable for Japan, by playing an even more proactive role in achieving peace, stability and prosperity of the international community as a “Proactive Contributor to Peace” based on the principle of international cooperation.
The vision is clear: Japan’s strategic intention is to proactively engage in international affairs. The implication is that Japan has not done much heretofore; hence the emphasis is on the need to play an even more proactive role. Abe’s aim was to change this situation and make Japan less a security consumer and more a security provider.
The assumption underlying Abe’s vision has been that no country in the world can secure its peace and security by itself. In a September CNN op-ed, Abe recognized “that individual countries acting alone are not enough to maintain global peace and stability.” Having experienced the 1990s when Japan was criticized for relying on “checkbook diplomacy,” Abe recognizes that the international community expects Japan to play a role in international affairs commensurate with its national capabilities and international standing.
In the two decades since the Gulf War, Japan’s international involvements have gradually evolved away from purely financial or in-kind contributions toward more proactive contributions to peace and security, although they were never called that. Whether it was anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, helping reconstruction efforts in Iraq, refueling coalition ships engaged in operations in Afghanistan, providing humanitarian and disaster relief, or participating in UN-sanctioned peacekeeping operations, Japanese leadership found non-financial ways to contribute to international affairs in ways commensurate with Japan’s national capabilities. But these were always the exceptions, rather than the rule, and the legislative process enabling those missions was often excruciating with Diet deliberations focusing more on minute details than national interests and broad policy objectives.
Abe has not only continued this evolution, he has also made important changes that should enable Japan to make greater contributions in the future. For instance, Abe has expanded Japan’s ability to export defense equipment and engage in international defense projects. He has also issued a new interpretation of Japan’s constitution that enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to engage in a wider range of missions, including coming to the defense of other countries even if Japan itself is not attacked. Moreover, Abe increased the number of strategic partnerships with regional countries and further deepened security ties with like-minded democracies such as Australia and India. He also sought closer ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and NATO and continues to place a premium on participation in multinational venues including the United Nations, East Asian Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Asian Development Bank.
It is important to note that many of Abe’s efforts have direct correlates to initiatives begun under his predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda. Despite the broad, negative brushstrokes held both in Japan and elsewhere of the Democratic Party of Japan’s three years in power under three prime ministers, the Noda Administration was qualitatively different from those of Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan. Noda steered Japan toward greater activity in international affairs. He announced Japan’s interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); revised Japan’s arms export principles; initiated a wide number of strategic partnerships with regional powers; drew Japan closer to the United States and other like-minded democracies; and strongly advocated Japan’s interpretation of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), both bilaterally and in multinational venues to counter China’s interpretation and its aggressive actions in the East and South China Seas.
Regardless of these similarities, the important question is whether Abe’s initiatives have resulted in proactive contributions to peace that are qualitatively different from Noda or other prime ministers. In other words, has Abe lessened Japan’s dependence on financial contributions in favor of increased contributions in other forms, such as Japanese civilians, non-combat SDF, or normative leadership? An examination of the Abe administration’s track record in reacting to major security events thus far reveals that old practices remain intact.
In the current fight against ISIS, for instance, while about a dozen countries are directly involved in airstrikes and dozens more are providing support with manpower and/or logistical assistance, Japan has yet to make a contribution that includes non-combat personnel – despite Abe’s vow “to hold [the terrorists] responsible for their deplorable acts” (ISIS killed two Japanese nationals earlier this year). According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) website, Japan’s main efforts against ISIS include strengthening counter-terrorism measures, including $15.5 million in counter-terrorism capacity building assistance, enhancing diplomacy to foster greater Middle East stability and prosperity, including $200 million in non-military assistance to support countries battling ISIS, and other aid to help make societies resilient to radicalization.
Related to the fight against ISIS has been the global response to refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria. At a time when other industrialized democracies are opening their doors to tens of thousands of refugees – with Germany accepting hundreds of thousands – Japan remains closed. In 2014, Japan accepted only 11 refugees out of 5,000 seeking such status. Japan’s main tool for dealing with refugees remains money. Japan is a top-tier donor to the UN High Commission on Refugees, giving $181.6 million in 2014. To deal with the current refugee crisis, Abe pledged $1.5 billion in emergency aid during his visit to the UN in September. As the United States and NATO struggle over how many refugees they will take and how quickly, Abe’s statement that “there are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants,” does not resonate with Japan’s friends and allies.
Similarly, in the fight against Ebola, Japan’s contributions were almost exclusively financial, with $173 million in assistance as well as in-kind contributions (such as test kits, ambulances, medical supplies, thermometers, and other equipment). Japan’s presence in on-the-ground relief activities was underwhelming. While the United States and United Kingdom sent large numbers of military personnel, the EU assisted with airlifting supplies from Europe, and even Cuba sent close to 500 doctors and nurses to engage in relief activities on the ground, Japan sent fewer than 30 doctors, liaison officers, and other advisors.
None of these efforts under Abe were qualitatively different from those of previous Japanese premiers. All were heavy on financial assistance and void of large-scale contributions of personnel, civilian or military. Indeed, the only outliers in Abe’s response to international events have been his actions to counter an increasingly assertive China in the East and South China Seas.
Militarily, Abe has accelerated efforts to strengthen the defense of Japan’s southwestern islands, acquiring new assets and reconfiguring the SDF’s defense posture to better monitor Chinese maritime activities, complicate China’s ability to gain control of the East China Sea or Japanese islands within it, and improve Japan’s ability to withstand – and potentially halt – a small-scale contingency. He has also moved to strengthen Japan’s alliance with the United States, enhance security ties with Australia and India, and expand strategic ties with Southeast Asian states. He has actively supported capacity building of Southeast Asia’s maritime entities, including coast guard training and donations of high-tech equipment and patrol boats. Economically, his administration successfully negotiated the TPP, which is seen as a way to challenge China’s economy. Importantly, the Abe administration has demonstrated normative leadership, strongly advocating rule of law, particularly maritime law. Nowhere is this truer than in Japan’s efforts to build a unified backing of Japan’s interpretation of the UNCLOS among Southeast Asian to make it more difficult for China to deal bilaterally with states with which it has territorial disputes. These actions aim to expand Japan’s strategic space vis-à-vis China; they also represent a very proactive Japan.
Make no mistake, Japan provides crucial support to the international community through its financial and in-kind assistance. None of what is presented here is intended to diminish Japan’s contributions in these areas.
Abe’s rhetoric, however, has heightened expectations that Japan will make contributions closer, if not comparable, to those of other major countries. Since Abe’s responses to major international security events that do not involve China have been similar to those of his predecessors – and fall short of the rhetoric – Japan risks disappointing the international community. Worse, the exception that Tokyo makes in responding to China seems to indicate a willingness to contribute robustly to international security problems only when Japan is directly affected. The prime minister may not personally feel this way, but the optics are not in his favor as his actions can easily lead to the interpretation that a fire on a distant shore is not Tokyo’s concern. So, too, does the fact that Japanese leaders continuously emphasize the strict limitations on Japan’s ability to conduct overseas operations, even after the recent enactment of new security legislation
In a May 2014 speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the prime minister asked a rhetorical question: How should Japan contribute to the pursuit of “peace and prosperity in Asia, forevermore”? The idea of Japan, an advanced civilian power, proactively contributing to peace is a positive development. Attempts to address regional and global security challenges would benefit from more active Japanese contributions, both physical and normative. If Abe were to deal with international problems in the way he has with China, we would see an approach utilizing all the tools Japan has available – but we do not. At least not yet. Perhaps a little more time is necessary; after all, the security legislation still needs to be operationalized and SDF personnel trained under the new rules. Until Abe takes such an approach, the international community will miss seeing Japan make proactive contributions to peace commensurate with its national capabilities and international standing.
Jeffrey W. Hornung is Fellow for the Security and Foreign Affairs Program at Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA in Washington, D.C.