In Abe’s Wake, Questions on Japan’s Course
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
The abrupt Sept. 12 resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sets the stage for a succession battle that will determine the Asian economic giant’s security future: keep moving toward “normalcy” at the pace set by Abe and his predecessor, Junichero Koizumi, or slow down?
Presidential elections on Sept. 23 will decide the new prime minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP): Foreign Minister and LDP Secretary-General Taro Aso or Yasuo Fukuda, former chief Cabinet secretary.
“Aso shares Prime Minister Abe’s vision for a broader Japanese role in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes a revision to Article 9 of the constitution and reinterpretation of the self-imposed restriction on exercising the right of collective self-defense,” said Sumihiko Kawamura, the deputy director of The Okazaki Institute in Tokyo.
“Fukuda is an advocate of more dovish policy toward China and South Korea, but he was a key player in drafting a bill for the Anti-terrorism Law and having it enacted when he was chief Cabinet secretary under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.”
Kawamura said that Abe’s successor will remain committed to the U.S.-Japan alliance and would keep Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force troops involved in operations in Afghanistan.
Abe’s resignation was widely expected in the wake of July 29 electoral losses in the upper house, but not so soon.
During his year as prime minister, Abe sought many changes in Japan’s military and its uses, including a change in the interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution to better defend itself in a crisis.
He pushed through a new law elevating Japan’s defense agency to Cabinet status and giving it a more equal voice in national policy.
After North Korea launched seven missiles into the Sea of Japan in July, Abe became the first prime minister to openly suggest that Japan should be able to pre-emptively strike North Korean missile facilities. China, North Korea and South Korea responded by accusing Abe of fostering a remilitarized Japan.
Still, some say Abe’s short tenure had little lasting impact.
“The resignation of Mr. Abe does not affect Japan’s military,” said Naoki Akiyama, director of the Tokyo-based Congressional National Security Research Group. “The recent changes [that] happened during the Abe administration [were] the result from efforts for many years, and Mr. Abe happened to be the prime minister when those yielded some results.”
Paul Giarra, an analyst with SAIC who once ran the Pentagon’s Japan desk, echoed that sentiment.
He said that Abe disappointed his conservative base when he didn’t live up to expectations and didn’t get approval for his international program, which was a constitutional revision in general and changes to Article 9, the “Peace clause,” in particular, Giarra said.
“He wasn’t able to get his program of normalization through because he mishandled domestic politics and suffered through a huge pension scandal and numerous cabinet resignations.”
Abe helped shift Japanese perceptions about the Yoshida Doctrine that steered Japan clear of militarism and relied on its economic might for global influence.
“This normalization is problematic in this region because the world has grown used to a relatively demilitarized Japan that shrank from international military and political engagement,” Giarra said. “Koizumi, Abe and Ozawa are trying to move Japan toward a more responsible international role that includes military action. The debate is no longer whether to normalize, but over how to do so and which political group will lead Japan forward.”
He said the easing tensions with China and North Korea are to Abe’s credit.
Christopher Hughes, author of the book Japan’s Re-emergence as a ‘Normal’ Military Power, said he doesn’t think much will change over the long term with Abe’s departure.
“Abe is likely to be succeeded by Aso Taro, who is a similar type of politician and will follow a similar type of policy line,” Hughes said.
The central short-term issue is whether the Japanese government will extend the stay of Japan Self-Defense Force troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.
“The DPJ [Democratic Party in Japan] opposition looks implacably opposed at the moment, so we could see the JSDF coming home by the end of the year, or switching to a different type of role more closely linked to the U.N. rather than the U.S.,” Hughes said. “I think the DPJ will be reluctant to block everything for fear of looking too negative and international criticism from the U.S. and others. So I think we might see Japan stepping slightly away from the U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation, but nothing very serious, and in fact, it might open up new roles for Japan in Afghanistan such as humanitarian assistance.”
Whoever succeeds Abe is going to focus more on domestic politics than grand defense strategy, Japan expert Peter Woolley said.
“The next prime minister will have as his main goal protecting his party’s seats in the lower house, not pushing for dramatic change in the defense forces,” said Woolley, author of the book Geography and Japan’s Strategic Choices.
“On the other hand, Abe’s successors will likely still have the specter of an erratic nuclear-armed North Korea to shape weapons development, new SDF capabilities and joint operations with the U.S.,” Woolley said.