Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Shinzo Abe's bait-and-switch campaign strategy

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is doing it again: campaigning on Abenomics while distracting voters’ attention away from his real agenda. When he got elected in 2012, Abe ran on Abenomics and kept his revisionist political and historical agenda under wraps, knowing that it does not resonate with voters. He then passed the unpopular secrecy law. In 2014, he called a snap election and again campaigned on Abenomics, diverting attention from his plans to lift constitutional constraints on Japan’s military. Subsequently, in 2015, he signed on to new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that expand what Japan is prepared to do militarily to support its allies. That same year he pushed through enabling legislation despite negligible public support — in the form of massive demonstrations and polls indicating majority opposition to his plans — for his goal of overturning Japan’s postwar laws on security policy. Subsequently citizens have filed a series of lawsuits nationwide against the legislation, arguing that it violates their constitutional rights.

The “Abe Doctrine” has thus been imposed by political elites without gaining public understanding or support. Abe can’t claim an electoral mandate for this doctrine because he deliberately ignored it in his campaign. Policy wonks in Washington and Tokyo insist that the public needs to become more realistic and abandon pacifist norms without understanding why they have proven so resilient and why the Abe Doctrine is so unappealing to the public. In the current campaign, Abe is still harping on Abenomics because his goal of revising the Constitution is unpopular. Abenomics has been an unmitigated failure — it has neither revived the economy nor boosted household income, there have been no structural reforms and job growth has been concentrated in low paid, nonregular employment — and this is widely recognized within business circles and the wider public. Indeed, by yet again postponing the planned tax increase, Abe has implied that he has been unable to revive the economy. However, on the hustings, he calls on people to stay the course, promising to rev up Abenomics and really get the economy humming. “It just needs more time,” he pleads. Right. Three-and-a-half years after he promised it would take only two years, Abe is still holding out hope and banking on the feeble opposition to secure a two-thirds majority in the Upper House — a crucial hurdle to his goal of revising the Constitution.

That feeble opposition is pointing out that earlier this year, Abe spilled the beans about wanting to push through constitutional revision. In March, he admitted during Diet interpellations that he had not yet won public understanding for this cherished goal. Apparently he doesn’t think that an election campaign is an ideal venue for detailing his plans to revise the Constitution, so he is resorting to the mendacious bait-and-switch strategy that has served him well. Taking down Japan’s pacifist and popularly supported Article 9 is the obvious target.

Christopher Hughes, professor of international politics and Japanese studies at the University of Warwick, dissects the Abe Doctrine, exposing its inherent flaws and logical contradictions in an astute book titled, “Japan’s Foreign Policy and Security Policy Under the ‘Abe Doctrine’-New Dynamism or New Dead End? (Palgrave, 2015). It is essential reading. He argues that the Abe Doctrine is a dead-end for a number of reasons, chiefly that it does not make Japan safer and isolates it in the region. He argues that it is a risky and radical gambit that is out of touch with public sentiments and unsustainable. He draws attention to its three key contradictions: First, it claims to embrace universal values, “but its underlying revisionism is illiberal and thus conflictual”; second, Abe seeks to “end the postwar regime through historical revisionism, but the focus on history creates tensions with the U.S. and East Asia”; and third, “the doctrine seeks autonomy through dependence on the U.S. that only further frustrates Japan’s lack of sovereign independence.”

The subjugation implicit in this client-state relationship is a recipe for what Hughes describes as “resentful realism” — “a Japan driven by fear of China, lack of trust in the U.S. and a continuous desire for the reassertion of national pride and autonomy.”

He concludes that the Abe Doctrine is wrongheaded, aggravates regional tensions and undermines Japan’s security interests.

Abe seeks to replace the long-standing “Yoshida Doctrine,” named after former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who fended off U.S. demands that Japan rearm by focusing resources on economic recovery while reminding America’s Cold War warriors that it was the U.S. that insisted on including Article 9 in the Constitution. According to Hughes, the Yoshida Doctrine insisted on Japan’s “need for a pragmatic and low-profile foreign policy, a highly constrained defense posture, reliance but not over-dependence on the U.S.-Japan security treaty, and the expedient rebuilding of economic and diplomatic ties with East Asian neighbors.”

In contrast, Hughes portrays the Abe Doctrine as shortsighted, because it aims to encircle China without convincing other Asian states to jump onboard. These states do have anxieties about China, and are happy to upgrade ties and get assistance from Japan but, as Hughes points out, none are eager to join a regional security framework based on a militarized confrontation with Beijing.

Regarding Abe’s duplicitous campaign strategy, Hughes believes this is his “classic tactic” of misleading voters and that Abe is preparing to ” go all out on constitutional revision.”

What would revising Article 9 of the Constitution allow Abe to do that he can’t do now?

“Probably not that much more,” says Hughes. “Although many argue that the hadome (conditions) mean that collective self-defense will remain limited, I am not convinced. Most of the so-called ‘three new conditions’ are open to easy interpretation by the argument to enhance its freedom of action and the executive has never had more power than now to interpret the Constitution as it pleases.”

Hughes adds, “I am not against a more robust Japanese security policy per se — China is a concern, for sure. But Japan needs to, a) create a security policy based on open democratic debate, free of ideological revisionism and influence from allies, and b) place that alongside developing other means to deal with China beyond just military means. My own thinking is that Japan needs to work much harder to engage China in regional multilateral institutions to moderate its behavior.”

Problematically, the Abe Doctrine’s provocative grandstanding does not strengthen Japan’s security or improve its negotiating strategy. Instead, Hughes argues, Japan should “regain its confidence in nonmilitary means and engagement to respond to China’s rise rather than military balancing and alliances.”

By misleading voters about his intentions, Abe’s election campaign is a disingenuous charade aimed at subverting democratic discourse.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.