February 5, 2015The Asian Balancegeopolitics

How far will Shinzo Abe go?

Japan's changing military posture presents opportunities for India

This is an unedited draft of my monthly The Asian Balance column that was published in Business Standard from 2010-2017. The column’s agenda was to persuade Indian policymakers to take an active interest in a region that has since come to be called the Indo-Pacific.”

When Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet reinterpreted” the pacifist article in Japan’s constitution seven months ago, opinion polls showed a majority of the people against greater militarisation, at least without extensive public debate and consultation.

While opposition parties - and Prime Minister Abe’s own coalition ally - are not in favour of expanding the role and the rules of engagement of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (SDF), Mr Abe has been determinedly pushing at the limits of over six decades of constitutional pacifism. He has scaled up defence spending over the last three years, and earlier this month sought a record defence Budget of $42 billion for the next fiscal year: the SDF will be equipped with greater amphibious capabilities, submarines, maritime surveillance aircraft, fighter aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and missile defence ships. Despite popular misgivings on his defence policy, Mr Abe’s approval ratings remain in the positive territory.

The kidnapping and barbaric beheading of two Japanese citizens by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) has brought Japan’s defence policy into sharp relief. The psychological effect among Japanese people is not unlike that in the United States after 9/11 - shattered innocence and the realisation that what they thought was a distant threat is all too real. Mr Abe’s reaction was in keeping with his own character but unprecedented coming from a Japanese prime minister: he promised to make the terrorists pay the price for their crimes, but ruled out any involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Now, some opposition parties and commentators are attempting to blame Mr Abe for provoking Isis into killing the Japanese hostages. They cite his recent trip to West Asia, where he announced $200 million in humanitarian assistance to countries fighting Isis. Not only does this make the outrageous implication that Japan’s foreign policy ought to be circumscribed by a militant group, it also gets the facts wrong. Mr Abe’s trip was scheduled months before the kidnapping, and the kidnapping occurred before the Japanese prime minister’s announcement of humanitarian aid. For now, public opinion is behind Mr Abe’s handling of the hostage crisis. In the coming months, expect Japanese public discourse to debate the country’s foreign and defence policies like never before.

he radical transformation of the global balance of power over the past two decades - with a strengthening China and a more circumspect United States - underpins Japan’s security calculations. The country enjoyed the peace, stability and prosperity that came with the security umbrella provided by the United States since the 1940s. What it once took for granted - remember the agitation against US military bases? - is now a question mark. Regardless of what the treaty relationship is and what political leaders say, can Japan really count on the United States if China were to attack? What is an intolerable loss for Japan - for instance, a disputed island - might not be serious enough for the United States to take up cudgels against China. The sense that Japan might have to fend for itself in a variety of circumstances motivates many strategists and politicians like Mr Abe. Hence, the higher defence expenditure and the attempt to interpret the Constitution to allow greater leeway in the use of military force.

The other impetus for change in Japanese defence policy comes from the demand that Tokyo play a bigger role in providing international security - from UN peacekeeping to protecting shipping lanes from pirates. Prohibition of the use of force means that Japanese SDF teams must be protected by other countries’ troops during joint operations, limiting their usefulness in conflict zones. Needless to say, Tokyo’s allies would prefer Japanese troops have less restrictive rules of engagement.

The Cabinet resolution adopted in July 2014 allows Japanese troops to use a minimum degree of force as a last resort when a close partner is attacked, Japan’s existence is threatened, the Japanese people’s basic rights are endangered. The conditions are very tight but the Abe government’s resolution marks a clear break from the old pacifist doctrine.

What can we expect Japan to do now? If Mr Abe has his way, Japan will scale up humanitarian, logistics and perhaps non-lethal” assistance to its international partners. Can Tokyo go further?

Japan could expand and broaden the scope of its external intelligence service to secure its interests abroad. It will be easier for Tokyo to invest in technical intelligence than human agents, but it will need both. Beyond this, there is the matter of overseas covert action capability, hard to discuss openly anywhere, a lot more so in a country where many people argue that the very existence of the SDF is unconstitutional.

What we will be able to observe is the extent of Japan’s military cooperation with its partners, including India. Japan and India have complementary military demographics and technological capabilities, and are attractive partners to each other. Convergence of geopolitical interests and the relationship between Mr Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have set the stage for a transformed India-Japan defence relationship. Much will depend on whether Mr Abe can prevail over Japan’s self-imposed restrictions on selling defence equipment, and on whether Mr Modi can fix India’s self-defeating procurement policies. That aside, more frequent exercises, training and intellectual exchanges are more easily achievable.

You can read more of these columns in the The Asian Balance archive.

But it’s not going to be easy for Mr Abe. The pacifist Constitution is popular among the Japanese people, remains the dominant narrative and is backed by a range of political parties. For his part, he has gotten the economy going and is relatively secure politically. The political outcomes in Tokyo have not been so important for New Delhi in a very long time.

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