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Abe’s security strategy lacks strategic thinking

by Masahiro Matsumura

Special To The Japan Times

Last December the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe adopted the first National Security Strategy (NSS), a 32-page document that identifies national interests, strategic goals and basic policy lines to be taken. It replaced the 1952 Basic Policy on National Defense, which is only about 300 words long.

The NSS appears to serve as the basis for formulating defense and armament policy and a specific weapons acquisition plan. The NSS, however, essentially continues the longtime status quo policy, with some additional measures to complement and/or supplement U.S. power, which has experienced a relative decline vis-a-vis the rising China.

As a result, the NSS presents neither a strategic reorientation nor a policy shift. NSS appears to be a full-fledged articulation of the traditional strategy.

It, then, begs the question why Abe loudly trumpeted the NSS with an emphasis on sekkyokuteki heiwashugi (active pacifism), which also translates as proactive contribution to peace, as the key idea. Obviously Abe aimed to receive wide popular support for his national security policy without presenting a key strategic concept. Given that Japanese defense planners are fully aware of this, what is their purpose in stressing the idea of active pacifism?

“Pacifism” here is a rather vague idea and not at all instrumental to formulating a grand strategy, given that no state today dares to declare a policy of aggression while advocating self-existence and self-defense. Thus the word “active” alone is significant.

Needless to say, active pacifism is in contrast to passive pacifism, a main pillar of the Constitution that the U.S. imposed on a pacified Japan. Certainly Japan has long followed the latter without participating in the formation and maintenance of the postwar U.S.-led world order, although its security and prosperity was secured thereunder.

As it became a global economic power, however, Japan practiced the former as the largest bilateral aid donor in the late 1980s and often as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

But Japan’s pursuit of active pacifism hereafter may possibly run out of steam except in diplomatic initiatives, given snowballing public debt under the low birthrate and the rapid graying of the population, conditions that may eventually lead to holding down spending on defense and aid. Also, pacifist Japan won’t be able to take part in U.N. peace enforcement operations involving the use of force. So there is no need to set forth a fresh active pacifism.

Revealingly the NSS is geared to serve as a means of justifying the traditional defense policy by relying on the phrase “active pacifism,” which is likely to generate popular support.

This means that defense planners are fully cognizant of the pacifist public sentiment that hinders the full exercise of strategic thinking, as demonstrated best by the ongoing theological debate over the constitutionality of exercising the right of collective self-defense.

Despite its high utility in domestic discourse, however, active pacifism may burden Japan’s public diplomacy, which is designed to accurately inform its security policy objectives and approach to the foreign public.

To cope with China’s challenge, the Abe administration is now accelerating Japan’s militarization on a limited scale, strengthening its military posture and loosening domestic legal constraints, all of which are contrary to the standard meaning of pacifism, which connotes anti-war attitudes, renunciation of war and even draft dodging.

Abe seems determined to reject an appeasement policy vis-a-vis China. His use of the word pacifism is understood in English, but his actual policies contradict each other, rendering him susceptible to political offensives by forces hostile to him, at home and abroad.

Nor, regrettably, has the NSS set new guidelines for priority and resource allocation in weapons acquisition and procurement to enhance the integrated operation of the three branches of the Self-Defense Forces.

True, the Abe administration has employed the new concept of “dynamic joint defense force” in its defense program outlines. But when looked at carefully, this is just a rephrasing of “dynamic defense capability,” which was coined in the 2010 Defense Ministry’s official internal report on defense acquisition reform, adopted under the Democratic Party of Japan government.

These two terms are essentially the same given that the two documents containing the two concepts were drafted by defense bureaucrats and then approved by the ruling party and the Cabinet.

The Abe administration avoided using the identical term coined by the DPJ administration. The newest weapons acquisition plan based on the newest defense program outline is much more specific in priority and resource allocation primarily because inter-service rivalry in the SDF has come to an end, thus contributing to the enhancement of air and sea power.

In the meantime, the acquisition plan streamlines the ground forces, probably due to the growing need to cope with China in the East China Sea, where ground forces are of limited use.

Hence, the first NSS is essentially Abe’s tool to justify his policy priority, indicating that he remains trapped in the ongoing domestic polemics of peace vs. self-defense. Yet, with this NSS, Japan has formally institutionalized a process of systematic and sequential strategy development.

A future NSS, when properly formulated, will fully explain Japan’s purpose and basic policy, enhance transparency, contribute to confidence-building and, perhaps, reinforce deterrence.

Most importantly, Japanese political leaders and defense planners will have to differentiate strategy development from domestic public relations management and public diplomacy. The country needs the latter two as much as the former, but should handle them separately from the former.

A future NSS must clearly explain a key strategic concept and not just put forth a vague idea.

Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku) in Osaka.

  • wada

    “To cope with China’s challenge” may be mistaken but “To cope with China’s encroachment” may be correct, I suppose.