Tokyo Keeps Washington Waiting on Defense

"For Washington, the nation’s 'most important alliance' might have gained a reliable partner at exactly the right time, even if patience is required."

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s election gamble is a prelude to his longstanding goal of making Japan a “normal” country on defense issues. However, amid domestic and foreign wariness, the Japanese economy tanking and more potential difficulties in Okinawa, Washington’s hopes for a reinvigorated ally might prove premature.

According to the latest opinion polls, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is set for a landslide victory in Sunday’s general election, with predictions it will secure 300 seats in the 475-seat lower house. With the support of partner New Komeito, the ruling coalition may even retain a two-thirds “super majority” that enables the lower house to override the upper house, giving the conservative prime minister a strong hand in pushing through economic and security reforms.

Despite the nation’s recent slide back into recession, Abe’s gamble in calling a poll two years before it was officially due should extend his political life to at least September 2018. This means the next U.S. president will know exactly what to expect from Tokyo, a rare situation given the past decade’s revolving door of Japanese leaders.

Abe’s desire to restore Japan’s “honor” and remove the restrictions of a pacifist constitution on the nation’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) has been a consistent theme of his political career. This was crowned by July’s cabinet decision to try and amend the laws to enable the exercise of a limited right of collective self-defense, which would effectively allow the SDF to actively support U.S. forces and other allies in overseas conflicts.

Under Article 9 of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, the nation pledges to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” as well as not maintaining any “land, sea and air forces” or other war potential.

Despite the ban, Japan’s defense budget compares with Germany’s and the nation maintains one of the world’s largest navies in one of the world’s most dangerous regions, with trouble spots including the Korean Peninsula and East China Sea. Should Japan become drawn into a conflict, the United States would be obliged to defend its ally under a bilateral security treaty.

Political machinations

Yet despite support from the United States and its allies for Japan’s increased engagement in regional security, Abe’s political machinations have ironically meant another delay in the process.

In September, the Abe administration decided to postpone defense bills, including a revised SDF law, to 2015 with the aim of avoiding a political backlash from voters in upcoming national and local elections. Abe’s Buddhist coalition partner, New Komeito, has reportedly called for any collective self-defense moves to be limited to waters around Japan, and both parties have preferred to thrash out their differences behind closed doors.

In the wake of December’s snap election, Japan’s government announced a delay in finalizing the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines, the first such proposed revision in nearly 20 years. According to media reports, Tokyo now hopes to have the guidelines completed by around May 2015, months after the previous year-end 2014 target.

According to October’s interim report released by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two nations are seeking “a more expansive partnership [that] would require enhanced capabilities and greater shared responsibilities” in the planned revisions to the 1997 guidelines.

The guidelines are set to encompass a range of measures, from enhanced intelligence gathering, additional training and exercises to air and missile defense and maritime security, cybersecurity and defense equipment and technology cooperation. They will also detail how Washington would cooperate with Tokyo in the event of an armed attack against Japan, and also “against a country that is in close relationship with Japan where Japan’s use of force is permitted under its constitution,” as per July’s move on collective self-defense.

"These revised guidelines will capture the greater scope of our alliance cooperation, reflecting its more global nature," a senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters.

"By clearly describing how the United States and Japan will operate in each of these areas during peacetime, during low-level gray zone provocations or during an armed attack, the revised guidelines will provide the policy direction for a stronger alliance, more capable of deterring threats and contributing to global security," the official said.

According to Japan’s Kyodo News, Abe reportedly apologized to U.S. President Barack Obama for the delayed defense guidelines at November’s G20 summit meeting in Australia, citing the potential influence on nationwide local elections set for April.