The ink was barely dry on the new Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, which were unveiled during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington last month, when Sen. John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a wake-up call to the Japanese people. He said he expects Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to put boots on the ground in the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula and hopes they will scale up operations in the Middle East and South China Sea in support of U.S. military forces.
Whoa! McCain is absolutely right that the new guidelines expand considerably what Japan is prepared to do in support of its U.S. ally, and there are no longer any geographic constraints, but his remarks clearly underscore that the U.S. is way more enthusiastic about the new arrangements than the Japanese people. Opinion polls suggest that Abe has not yet convinced many citizens of the benefits of the more robust security posture he favors.
The wonks think they know better, but a recent Pew Research Center poll suggests 23 percent of Japanese favor an expanded security role while 68 percent are opposed. A Kyodo poll in April indicated that 48 percent oppose the new defense guidelines while 35.5 percent are in favor, while the Jiji Press poll in April found only 14 percent support the “Abe Doctrine,” underscoring the gaping chasm between public sentiment and the Tokyo-Washington security axis.
Japanese are concerned that the United States will drag them into a war unrelated to Japan’s direct security interests and are leery about the new security legislation because it is obvious that Abe is gutting the Constitution since he knows he can’t win public backing to revise it.
On May 1, NHK announced poll results also revealing widespread and growing public doubts about Abe’s security agenda. On the issue of collective self-defense, only 22 percent are in favor, the same percentage that supports amending Article 9 of the Constitution, which ostensibly curtails what Japan’s military forces can do.
In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun on May 1, Gerald Curtis, a political scientist at Columbia University, expressed concern that the government is steamrolling public sentiments on security issues and needs to promote a national debate on this sensitive issue. Given that this marks a major overhaul of the pacifist and minimalist security policies known as the “Yoshida Doctrine,” which have prevailed since the 1950s, the government has not done a good job of selling the new “Abe Doctrine.” The same NHK poll indicates that only 2 percent thought the government had explained the new doctrine well while 30 percent gave a “somewhat well” response — hardly a robust endorsement for what constitutes a massive transformation in Japan’s military policy.
Currently the prime minister is trying to push through legislation that will provide a legal foundation for Japan to deliver on what it already promised in Washington. Abe has taken flack for committing the government to an expanded security role before securing Diet approval, creating an unfortunate impression that catering to Washington’s concerns takes precedence over heeding the will of the Japanese people.
The Abe Doctrine is unleashing the Japanese military from long-standing constitutional constraints because of anxieties over China’s regional hegemonic ambitions and increasing assertiveness about its territorial claims. Japan’s greatest geopolitical dilemma is how to cope with China’s growing power and assertiveness, most dramatically illustrated by the ongoing dispute involving rival claims to the Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in China) in the East China Sea.
Since Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s visit to China to normalize relations in 1972, Tokyo and Beijing had shelved their dispute over these islands to ensure the issue would not impede normalization of relations or the flow of Japanese “reparations” involving aid, grants and technical assistance that cumulatively exceeded $35 billion. China’s economic miracle thus owes much to Japan, and both nations have benefitted from this cooperation, but gratitude is in short supply and the “time-out” is clearly over.
The recent update of the Japan-U.S. defense guidelines significantly expands what Japan is prepared to do in support of Washington because Tokyo wants to be sure that the America has its back in the event of hostilities over the disputed territory. The Japanese government is not fully reassured by Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which states: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
It seems clear, but the wording provides a degree of wiggle room regarding how the United States might act or respond. One side’s deliberate strategic ambiguity is another’s source of anxiety. Tokyo’s abiding fear is that the States just might decide not to jeopardize relations with China over some uninhabited remote rocks in the East China Sea. So even if it seems certain that Washington would respond as Tokyo wishes, a gnawing angst lingers.
The new defense guidelines are part of Abe’s cling-tight security policy reinforced by following Washington’s lead on isolating China via the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The previous 1997 defense guidelines addressed a very different security environment, and back then China’s defense budget was $10 billion while in 2014 it was an estimated $144 billion. To some extent the Pentagon and Japanese hawks are hyping the threat to help push agendas, but Beijing is not helping matters with its clumsy diplomacy, brinkmanship and sweeping maritime territorial claims backed by saber-rattling and land reclamation projects in the Spratly Islands, located more than 1,000 km from China’s coast.
Abe embraces “proactive pacifism” and a strengthened U.S. alliance to deter China’s hegemonic ambitions while also pursuing intensified economic engagement because it is essential to Japan’s growth. This balancing act depends on Beijing accepting the rationale of an East Asian detente.
Certainly the rise of China requires some degree of strategic accommodation, but on what terms? Perhaps a combination of deterrence and mutual economic interests will avert conflict between China and the U.S./Japan, reinforced by shared global interests, but China is an aspiring power and history is not littered with examples of status quo powers conceding enough to coopt rising powers and avert conflict. Japan knows this story all too well. Thus, the Abe Doctrine seems more like a stopgap tactic rather than a compelling strategic vision. Detente with China is imperative, and there are some encouraging signs, but the hard work of diplomacy lies ahead.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.