Last year, Noda announced a relaxation of Japan’s arms export rules and his defense advisory board recommended lifting the ban on collective defense, which would allow the Defense Forces to engage in collective action with the United States, the same way our NATO allies and Australia can. The prime minister has the power to recognize and activate the right of collective defense; it requires only a reinterpretation of Article Nine (the “peace clause”) of the Constitution rather than the more difficult path of revision. Already Japanese forces are operating in the Arabian Sea with rules of engagement that allow them to use force to help other partners under attack by pirates, the legal distinction being that pirates are criminals and not a state. The next step, well within the realm of political possibility, would give a significant boost to the ability of Japan’s defense forces to operate with the United States and other allies.
Third, Japan should align with other maritime states to maintain a favorable equilibrium in the Pacific. Japan signed security agreements with Australia in 2007 and India in 2008 and cooperation with both countries continued to increase even after the DPJ came to power in 2009. Noda proposed in a speech at the East Asia Summit in Bali in 2011 that Japan help the region establish a new maritime order with clear rules for maintaining peace and stability. He did not need to tell his ASEAN and other counterparts that the challenge to that order would most likely be China. Abe’s enthusiasm for maintaining a maritime coalition led him to propose a “Quad” summit among the United States, Japan, Australia and India when he was last prime minister in 2007. The proposal proved too rich for the other three states, but he will search for new ways to achieve the same strategic alignment when he comes back into power.
Fourth, the country will join the TPP trade agreement. This will seem odd to those who see the LDP candidates campaigning on the theme that they will only join a regime that would allow Japan to carve out exemptions, a stance that makes participation in TPP impossible. But what else can a mostly rural-based party say before an election? In private, the LDP leadership knows that the United States always carves out exemptions—particularly for sugar—and that Japan will find a way to do the same. Business leaders express quiet confidence that the LDP will bring Japan into the TPP, something Noda proposed but failed to follow through on before his party lost popular support. LDP leaders acknowledge that it is an issue of when—not if.
Finally, Japan must find a way to grow its economy. For decades the country managed to have impressive economic growth and keep theGini coefficient (the gap between rich and poor) at the lowest level in the OECD. In the 1990s, that juggling act fell apart and in 2001, Koizumi chose reform and growth over redistribution. The economy grew faster, but so did the Gini coefficient. The DPJ came in to power in 2009 promising to put an end to what they called Koizumi’s “neocon economics” and to massively redistribute wealth through subsidies and tax exemptions. That experiment ended in dismal failure. Noda began to adjust the party’s position on pro-business policies and the LDP will bring the government back full circle.
It goes without saying that the last of these priorities—growing the economy—is both the most important and the most difficult to execute. There is a general consensus among conservatives that nuclear power cannot be phased out and that business needs an improved environment in terms of taxation and labor-mobility laws. How quickly the LDP moves on restoring nuclear power will depend on the political climate they face once in power.
Other issues remain more contested. Will the government stimulate the economy through monetary easing? Through deregulation? Through women’s empowerment? Through immigration reform? These are more difficult to address as policy questions than the national-security measures listed above. But they are critically important and as with American choices—about fiscal, immigration and regulatory reform—they will affect the strength of the Japanese economy and the scope of resources for foreign aid and defense.
Does Japan have a strategy? The ends are fairly clear. Establishing the means will be a generation-long effort. In the meantime, Japan remains a powerful nation and an important variable in the security of Northeast Asia.
Michael J. Green is Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.