2012-12-18 by Richard Weitz
This weekend’s parliamentary elections have returned Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to power after several years of rule by the centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DJP).
The LDP is projected to have increased its total to around 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house, up from its current total of 118 seats. If the LDP keeps its planned coalition with its long-time partner New Komeito, backed by a large Buddhist organization, the new right-wing coalition government could have a two-thirds majority, which is required to amend the constitution.
As it happens, Hudson Institute, where I am a fellow, hosted Abe in October 2010 and Nobuteru Ishihara, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, in December 2011.
They described in some detail the policies they would like to pursue to revitalize the Japanese-U.S. alliance.
Both men lamented Japan’s declining status in global affairs, citing in particular the stagnating economy and the passing of Japan by China as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010. Abe in particular was shocked by the “atmosphere of resignation” his compatriots displayed at the loss of Japan’s 40-year number 2 position in the international economy. Among other costs, Japan can no longer act as the “spokesman for Asia” at the G8 summits and in other multilateral institutions and meetings.
To reverse this situation, Abe outlined a vigorous program that would reduce the country’s $10 trillion debt and promote innovation as a pillar of Japan’s economic renewal, building on the country’s high educational level and technological expertise in energy conservation, robotics, and biotechnology.
He also wanted to reduce trade barriers to expand the number of consumers of Japanese products.
Recalling President Ronald Reagan’s words in his 1981 Inaugural Address to Americans that, “we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams.” Abe said he wanted to “deliver this optimistic message to my fellow citizens, who are mired in pessimism.”
Both Abe and Ishihara stressed the importance of having a stronger Japanese economy, and a robust Japan-U.S. defense alliance, to deal with what they saw as a more assertive, aggressive, and dangerous China.
Abe expressed particular alarm at the growth of the Chinese Navy and its expanding “strategic frontier,” a Chinese term to justify claiming exclusive economic zones in the Pacific Ocean that Abe compared with the German “lebensraum” concept.
“It appears that China hopes to gain control not only over Taiwan, but also over the South China Sea, the East China Sea and, indeed, the entire Western Pacific” in pursuit if a “Finlandization’ Strategy” in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ishihara noted that, while ten years ago Japan enjoyed military seniority over China, today China has since surpassed Japan through its massive defense acquisition program that included aircraft carriers, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and other tools to drive away foreign fleets from its shores.
All of this is “part of China’s ambition to attain complete maritime supremacy in the waters off of its coast, initially up to what it calls the ‘First Island Chain,’ which runs from Kyushu in Japan, down through Okinawa and Taiwan to the Philippines.”
According to Ishihara, “This is an area that encompasses almost the entire South and East China Seas; these waters also contain disputed islands that were designated to be Chinese territory under a 1992 Chinese domestic law. After securing the seas up to the First Island Chain, China wishes to expand its maritime supremacy to what it calls the ‘Second Island Chain’ in order to control Taiwan and the seas’ rich natural resources.”
In light of Beijing’s strategy, Abe expressed concern at what he saw as the weak policy of the DJP government, manifested by how the Japanese yielded to Chinese demands to return a Chinese fishing vessel captain who not only intruded into Japan’s territorial waters in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands but also intentionally rammed into a Japanese Coast Guard patrol ship.
Abe said that Japan should seek a “strategic and mutually-beneficial relationship” with China, not one based on appeasement.
Abe emphasized that the main purpose of the Japan-U.S. alliance should be to dissuade China from pursuing a “foreign-policy adventurism” as well as show greater respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Ishihara likewise observed that China’s growing economic and military power was leading Beijing to cast aside its “peaceful rise” rhetoric and adopt a more aggressive stance.
“The China of today seems a world away from the country that quietly provided support for the U.S. war on terrorism and refrained from criticizing Japan’s dispatch of the SDF to Iraq in 2004. In its place is a nation that has no hesitation in criticizing others over things it itself does and is hyper-sensitive to criticism even from its own people, let alone outsiders.”
Ishihara also cited last year’s Operation Tomodachi, when more than 20,000 U.S. military personnel provided vital support for a Japan devastated by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accidents as “a powerful demonstration of the enduring strength and closeness of our relationship.”
In his view, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which legitimized the continued stationing of U.S. bases in Japan, was only indispensable for “Japan’s own security but has also provided the fundamental conditions necessary for the extraordinary growth and development of the Asian region.”
For Japan to play its part in sustaining this balance, Abe wanted Japan to affirm its right to collective self-defense, “a natural right for any country” whose denial was only emboldening Beijing and losing Japan respect in other Asian countries.
He also wanted to expand Japan’s arms exports as a means to help the country’s defense industry recover from near bankruptcy. Recalling the joint Japan-U.S. victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, he observed that a “Cold War persists today in Northeast Asia.”
Ishihara believed that the Japanese government also should help Japanese stay focused on “the big picture” and not become overly preoccupied with divisive issues like the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma or how to protect Japanese farmers in negotiating its entry in the Trans-Pacific Partnership on free trade.
For our look at the evolution of Japanese defense policy see the following:
Note: Many of these themes will be examined in our book (by Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake and Richard Weitz) Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy to be published by Praeger Publishers next year.