External Affairs

Why Abe’s Security Package Has the Japanese Up in Arms

The Japanese PM’s ratings are high because the economy is doing well but opposition is growing to his plans to use the military for missions beyond the country’s territorial defence

File photo of US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces ships in the East China Sea. Credit: US Navy

File photo of US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces ships in the East China Sea. Credit: US Navy

Tokyo: Ever since Shinichi Abe became Prime Minister of Japan following the Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide victory  in the December 2012 general election, Japanese politics has shown a stability that differs starkly from the preceding period. To date, Abe’s economic policy of ‘Abenomics’ – based upon the “three arrows” of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms – has been somewhat successful. Japan’s Nikkei Stock average has exceeded 20,000 in April 2015 for the first time in a decade and a half.

Now the government is pushing ahead with a new security strategy for Japan which would alter the basic framework established at the end of Word War II. The strategy, a part of Abe’s long-cherished political agenda, is meant to cope with the rise of an increasingly assertive China. Implementation of the strategy involves reinterpreting the Japanese constitution, deepening cooperation with the US, and promoting a new concept of the Indo-Pacific. Obviously, these changes will hugely influence Asia’s security environment.

To concretise this strategy, the Abe government has submitted a package of security bills to the current session of the Diet, or parliament. The bills are aimed at authorising the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to undertake missions of a new type overseas. In order to convince the people that sufficient time has been spent in discussing its implications and because the LDP is encountering growing criticism against the package, the government has extended the Diet’s session by 95 days to September 27, the longest extension since WWII.

Abe’s world

Within days of coming to power in 2012, Abe outlined his foreign policy ideas in an English language article titled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond”. The main point of the piece – which, strangely enough, has never been published in Japanese – was  this: “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.”

To give shape to his pro-active security policy, he is in favour of revising the present Japanese Constitution, in particular Article 9, which formally renounces the sovereign “right of belligerency”:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

To accomplish these aims, the Constitution stipulates that armed forces with war-waging potential will not be maintained. Although Japan maintains a de facto military, its nomenclature – Self-Defense Forces (SDF) – emphasises this narrow objective. Article 9 has traditionally been strictly interpreted as not permitting the right of collective self-defence. In the past, successive Japanese governments adhered to such an interpretation of the Article which was widely regarded as a symbol of Japan’s pacifism.

Although the Abe government has shown a clear intention to amend Article 9, it has given up the plan because the move must be initiated by the Diet through a concurring vote of two-thirds of both houses, which the LDP does not have. Therefore, in July 2014, the government re-interpreted the Article to allow the SDF to provide military aid to the US and other friendly countries under attack based on the principle of collective self-defence.

In April 2015, in the ‘2+2’ meeting of foreign and defence ministers of Japan and the US, new Defense Guidelines were unveiled which eliminate geographic restrictions on military cooperation, so far limited largely to joint work for the defence of Japan and surrounding areas under the old guidelines of 1997. Simply put, the SDF is now expected to play a global role. During Abe’s US visit of April 2015, he and Obama welcomed the new guidelines.

Growing opposition

In Japan, there is rising apprehension about, and opposition to, the new package. Taku Yamasaki, former LDP Vice-President, has joined other party veterans in criticising the changes because the laws entail high risks. Those who oppose the Abe government’s security policy are worried about a change to Japan’s pacifist Constitution. “If members of the Self-Defence Forces go to the opposite side of the world for rear-echelon support activities, they will likely commit acts that violate the Constitution. It is certain that the SDF members will be plunged into a situation in which they and their enemies kill each other,” Yamasaki said.

Seiji Maehara, who was Foreign Minister in the former Democratic Party of Japan government, has also criticised the new guidelines. Although he recognised the necessity of renewing the guidelines and laws under changing security circumstances, he was apprehensive about the possible end result. He fears the Japanese SDF would be unable to upgrade its capabilities, equipment, and systems under the new guidelines, with the result that the US might feel betrayed and Japan–US relations might be jeopardised.

On his part, US Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed the guidelines: “The revised defence guidelines that we announced yesterday – the first in 17 years – establish important new frontiers for our alliance.” However, in the US certain cautious views exist. For example, Sheila Smith, a well-known US Japanologist, has said, “The largest challenge for US policymakers will be developing a cooperative relationship with Beijing while not undermining the United States’ close alliance with Tokyo”.

Opinion polls have established that the Japanese people oppose the guidelines. According to a March 23, 2015 poll reported in Nihon Keizai Shinbun, support for Abe’s measures stood at 31% while opposition to it was 51%. At the same time, the approval rate of the Abe government was 47%. Another opinion poll published by the Kyodo News Service on April 30, 2015, showed support at 35.5 % while the number opposed was 47.9%, and the approval rate of the Abe government stood at 52.7%. There is even stronger opposition to any amendment to Article 9. The results of an opinion poll reported in Asahi Shimbun on May 2, 2015 show that 63% of respondents opposed a constitutional amendment while 29% supported it.

Last month, another event added fuel to the fire. On June 4, three constitutional experts were invited to give their views at the Constitutional Research Council of the Diet. All of them, including one nominated by the LDP, declared the package of security laws to be unconstitutional. Their views can be assumed to reflect the Japanese people’s perspective.

The experts’ view appears to be influencing the attitude of the ordinary Japanese. The latest opinion poll by JIJI Press of June 13, 2015 shows support for the package of security bills stands at only 13.6%, whereas those who are opposed or neutral are 80% – 12% want it scrapped altogether while 68% seek careful deliberations, not necessarily during the current session of the Diet, while the approval rating of Abe government was 46.8%.

Though most Japanese oppose his security package, the Abe government still enjoys very high approval ratings. A possible interpretation of this dichotomy could be that most people are satisfied with Japan’s economic situation, which has partly improved because of recent low oil prices. Though they feel anxious about security issues, the situation is something like Chinese governance: people are placated by the Chinese economy, lulled away from seeking improved democracy.

Future prospects

Although the Japanese economy is performing well, future trends appear uncertain. If Abe can maintain his high approval rating based on Japan’s favourable economic situation, he might find it possible to proceed with his security initiative. However, if Japan’s economy worsens, popular restlessness against his government, including his external policies, is likely to grow.

Of course, Abe knows that if China’s external posture becomes more assertive, that would help persuade the Japanese people to acquiesce and accept his package. In fact, China is opposing Abe’s Asian ‘security diamond’ concept; Chinese analysts see it as Japan’s way of containing China’s maritime ambitions. It is quite natural for China to guard against Abe’s new security moves, which would jeopardise its maritime strategy for the first and second island chains, the so-called string of pearls, and it’s ‘One Belt and One Road’ Initiative.

Abe might also be thinking he needs to have a reliable country like India on his side. Japan–India relations today can be characterised as the closest they have been in the past seven decades. The two countries have mutually dovetailing interests and needs in the economic and strategic fields. They have found each other filling complementary roles and have almost identical perceptions about China. Fundamentally, Japan’s Indo-Pacific concept and India’s Look East policy – now designated as ‘Act East’ – mutually fit, particularly given the chemistry between Abe and Narendra Modi. But there are also differences in emphasis: Japan believes in pursuing a pro-active, ‘forward’ policy towards China while New Delhi would like to have stable relations with Beijing. In any case, the eventual fate of Abe’s security package will have important implications for the two countries.

Takenori Horimoto is a Visiting Professor at the Open University of Japan. One of Japan’s leading Indologists and international affairs specialists, he ha worked earlier at the Nationa Diet Library and Kyoto University.