Can Japan’s National Security Strategy outlive Abe?

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On 17 December 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued Japan’s first National Security Strategy (NSS). The document declares that Japan will make a more ‘proactive contribution to peace’ based on the principle of international cooperation. It also outlines three basic goals for Japan’s national security — ensuring the nation’s territorial sovereignty, improving the security environment in the Asia Pacific region by cooperating with the United States and other regional partners, and active participation in global efforts to maintain international order. While all these goals are admirable, the real question is whether the policy priorities defined by Abe can outlive his term.

During his visit to Washington DC in February 2013, Abe said he believed that Japan should remain a ‘first-class nation’. That is, it should belong to a group of nations that shape international rules and norms, and contribute to the stability of the global security environment. In a sense, the NSS is a document that outlines Abe’s perception of what Japan should do to join this group. The quick ascension of China — which has been emboldening Beijing for the last few years — no doubt influences Abe’s views. He sees Japan’s ‘proactive contribution to peace’ as critical to countering the rise of China.

The Japanese prime minister’s commitment to the principles identified in the NSS predates its release. Abe has spearheaded important changes in Japanese diplomacy since his cabinet was inaugurated in December 2012. So far he has focused his efforts on strengthening bilateral security cooperation and promoting respect for international norms.

Abe has sought to deepen bilateral security cooperation not only with the United States but also fellow US allies and other key security partners. For example in 2007, during Abe’s first term as prime minister, he paved the way for deeper Japan–Australia bilateral security links by signing the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Since December 2012, Japan–Australia security relations have reached a new level of closeness, with the Tokyo ‘two-plus-two’ meeting (that is, a bilateral ministerial meeting that includes both foreign and defence ministers) in June 2014 followed by Abe’s visit to Australia on 8–9 July 2014.

Abe has also demonstrated a clear desire to forge a closer security relationship with India. Although Japan moved to forge a closer relationship with India in 2000, Tokyo’s diplomatic outreach to India also accelerated between 2006–07 when Abe was the prime minister the first time. Strengthening of Japan-India relations have enjoyed bipartisan support since then, culminating in the signing of Japan–India Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in February 2011. Similar to Japan–Australia relations, Abe clearly intends to pursue qualitative enhancement in this bilateral relations. In 2013, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited India as state guests in 2013 (Emperor Akihito returned to India for the first time in 53 years), which carries considerable diplomatic significance. About eight weeks following their visit, Abe himself visited New Delhi in January 2014, when he signed the Joint Declaration for Strategic and Global Partnership.

Southeast Asia and Europe are also included in the diplomatic foray — two regions in which Japan has had enduring foreign policy interests but where it has been unsuccessful in establishing concrete policy initiatives. In regards to Southeast Asia, Abe has become the first Japanese prime minister to have visited all 10 ASEAN member states. He also was the first Japanese prime minister to be invited to deliver the keynote speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May 2014. Among ASEAN members, Abe has placed particular emphasis on reaching out to the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar — countries that share Japan’s concern about China’s increasingly assertive stance on territorial disputes.

In Europe, Abe participated in the North Atlantic Council meeting and NATO meeting in Brussels on 6 May 2014 to articulate why Japan and Europe are ‘natural partners’. Leveraging the efforts to institutionalise closer ties between Japan and NATO, including the 2010 agreement on securing classified information and related material, Japan under Abe’s watch convened joint research on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief with NATO. Furthermore, Abe and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen signed Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program during his visit to Brussels. Japan has also aggressively pursued security dialogue with NATO member states on bilateral basis. For example, it held its first ‘two-plus-two’ meeting with France in January 2014. A Japan–UK ‘two-plus-two’ meeting is also in the works for later this year.

Also high on Abe’s agenda is promoting respect for international norms. Abe has emphasised the importance of an open and free global commons in the sea, air, cyberspace and space. In his first foreign policy speech in January 2013, he discussed the importance of a free and open maritime domain — a consistent theme in most of his major foreign policy speeches, including his keynote address at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. From Washington to Singapore, to Brussels, to Canberra, the central focus of Abe’s speeches has been the preservation of free and open seas, and the necessity of upholding international norms such as freedom of navigation.

Abe is also seeking to revamp Japan’s foreign and security policy toolkit. This includes institutional adjustments such as establishing the National Security Council (in November 2013) and legal adjustments such as enacting laws to protect classified information and the recent controversial decision to alter Japanese government’s position on the self-imposed complete prohibition on exercising the right of collective self-defence. Furthermore, his efforts include revising past policies, such as the release of the National Defense Program Guidelines in December 2013 and the recalibration of Japan’s arms export controls in April 2014. In addition, the Official Development Assistance Guidelines are to be further revised by the end of the year to create greater room for Japan to provide foreign assistance to help aid recipients to boost their security capacity.

These changes, if implemented fully and consistently by the governments that succeed Abe, will go a long way to putting Japan in a position where it can help to shape the global and regional security environment. It will allow Japan to have robust partnerships with countries other than the United States (Tokyo’s only treaty ally) while continuing to anchor Japan’s foreign and security policy to strong ties between Tokyo and Washington.

Abe’s efforts have already borne fruit, mainly in broadening the potential for Japan’s cooperation on defence equipment with US allies worldwide. Japan’s relations with the UK and Australia are most notable in this regard. On 4 July 2013 Japan signed an agreement to jointly develop defence equipment with the UK as well as an agreement to protect classified information. This institutionalised the security relations between Japan and UK based on the defence co-operation memorandum of understanding, which was signed in 2012. Japan and Australia have signed an agreement on joint research in submarine technologies. In Southeast Asia, Japan is already working with Indonesia and the Philippines to transfer Japanese coast guard equipment to help shore up their coast guard capacities.

But momentum is critical to build on these initial successes. As these agreements proceed to the implementation phase, it will be easy for the process to be bogged down by interagency competition as well as domestic resistance. The ultimate success of Japan’s multifaceted engagement outlined in the NSS depends on whether Japanese leaders, including Abe himself, can continue to exercise strong leadership.

The policy principles that are laid out in the NSS, while effective, are designed for Japan’s peacetime activities. How Japan can expand its participation in activities in times of crisis or post-conflict — whether as a part of peacekeeping forces that are organised under the UN or multinational forces that may or may not have UN mandates — still has not been thought through. While there has been an ongoing debate inside Japan over the right to collective self-defence, discussion about its participation in regional and global collective security frameworks has been absent. This suggests that Japan may still be unable to act promptly in times of crisis.

Japan’s strained relationship with South Korea also continues to handicap its efforts to expand cooperation with its fellow US allies. Both Tokyo and Seoul share responsibility in allowing the historical animosity to severely limit areas of practical policy cooperation. Without reconciliation with Seoul, another key US ally in Northeast Asia, Japan’s ability to play a robust and visible role in regional and global security issues will continue to be constrained.

Finally, the fact that the current NSS strongly reflects Prime Minister Abe’s own policy outlook may work against the longevity of the document. In principle, the NSS replaced the 1953 Basic Principles of National Defense and is expected to continue to define Japan’s national security policy priorities even after Abe departs. But, because it is very clear that the document reflects Abe’s own foreign and security policy views, it is just as likely that Abe’s successor will decide to revise the NSS to communicate his or her own policy preferences. Whether the policy of ‘proactive contribution to peace’ will have an enduring impact on Japan’s core foreign and security policy principles after Abe remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared in East Asia Forum, on November 18, 2014. 

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