On July 1, Abe’s government passed a cabinet resolution to amend the Constitution by way of explanation to lift bans on collective self-defense. It used ambiguous language to provide the basis of military action in the future, which also means that Japan could regain the power to wage war. Japan’s “peace constitution” is in danger. Now, there is a necessary question to ask: Why can Abe’s government do this?
Firstly, there is the matter of Abe’s government’s features. Following the Koizumi government, Japan once again fell into a rotational political cycle, meaning, there was a new prime minister almost every year. This had enormous negative impacts on foreign policy and social policies related to people’s livelihood. However, since the victory of the Lower and Upper House elections, assuming nothing unexpected occurs, the current cabinet will be able to avoid a “short-term” fate. This provides the most important political condition for Abe to promote his planned political, economic, and foreign policy.
Second is the issue of Japan’s domestic economy. Since taking power, Abe had taken many measures to advance Japan’s economy development. The measures dubbed “Abenomics” had positive economic effects. According to statistics by the World Bank, Japan’s economic growth rate reached 1.5% in 2013. However, it seems difficult to achieve tangible results to implement the structural economic reforms (generally named “the third arrow”) in the near term. The third arrow will face greater resistance, greater challenges and greater uncertainty than the first “two arrows” (fiscal and monetary policies). Thus, under this scenario, Abe’s cabinet leverages high approval ratings to advance the political process.
Third is the change in the external security environment. To seek a modified interpretation of the Constitution with the aim of lifting collective self-defense, Abe’s government continuously exaggerated the security threats. In recent years, the sense of crisis in Japan has grown and it is comprehensive. From an economic perspective, since 2010, Japan’s position as the world’s second largest economy has been replaced by China and the previous East Asian economic pattern ceased to exist. The original balance between China and Japan – China has the advantage of political power, Japan has the advantage of economic power – is broken. In terms of security, the security situation in Northeast Asia is not in Japan’s favor, which made Japan feel pressure, mainly from two aspects, one being from North Korea, China and Russia. According to a poll released by Pew Research Center on July 18, 2013, 96% of Japanese respondents believed that the development of China’s military power was a bad thing. The other is from the lack of confidence in the U.S. security guarantee. Therefore, Abe’s government thinks it is high time for Japan to give more considerations to its own security.
Last but not least, there are rapid changes in American attitudes. Since WWII, Japan’s domestic and foreign policy has been largely developed and implemented under the supervision and permission of the United States. So far, this factor can still be used as an important variable when analyzing the change of Japanese foreign and security policy. In fact, Obama’s attitude towards Japan’s lifting collective self-defense has undergone a major shift from initial indifference to showing support. In February 2013, when Prime Minister Abe visited the United States and asked what U.S. policy was on the issue, President Obama did not respond. However, one year later, on April 21, 2014, when interviewed by the Yomiuri Shimbun, President Obama made it clear that he appreciated Japan’s efforts to reconsider and reinterpret the collective self-defense, and then confirmed this position again in a US-Japan joint statement, “The United States and Japan: Shaping the Future of the Asia-Pacific and Beyond” released by the White House on April 25. This statement said “The United States welcomes and supports Japan’s consideration of the matter of exercising the right of collective self-defense”. It can be concluded that if there were no U.S. support, Abe’s efforts to lift the ban on collective self-defense would not be easily done.
It is noteworthy that the United States changed its position in just one year’s time. There are a variety of factors, but one of the most important factors is that the United States feels more anxiety regarding its primacy in Asia. Also, the U.S. found there was no adequate resource to keep its leading role in the region. In fact, Obama has repeatedly stressed that the United States needs to lead the world, but the way to lead should be changed. One way is to adopt a “burden-sharing” approach to maintain the supply of “public goods” in the international community. Thus, “leading from behind” has become a key element of Obama’s global leadership strategy. In Asia, the United States also uses this approach by allowing its allies and regional partners to take on more obligations. In this sense, Japan is the main object of shared responsibility.
Meanwhile, the United States and Japan have many differences on major strategic issues, such as on historical issues (e.g the Yasukuni Shrine, comfort women). The U.S. has shown strong dissatisfaction with Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last year. The U.S. State Department even uses the phrase ‘sex slaves’ to replace ‘comfort women’ in order to condemn Japan’s brutality in WWII. Therefore, it is necessary for Asian countries, especially China to properly develop the relationship with the U.S. to prevent Japan from further deviating to the right, as the U.S. remains an indispensible actor to confine and manage Japan’s acts. In reality, it is the most critical one.
Chen Jimin, Ph.D, is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C.