October 01, 2012

Japan’s rightward shift

Japanese politics are shifting to the right, and the impact on regional security could be crucial.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise victory to head Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last week represents a second chance to lead the conservative party and, by early next year, very possibly all of Japan. His first stint as prime minister ended in 2007 with a whimper after just a year. A second go as Japan’s leader is apt to be accompanied by noisier ambitions.

Before one assumes this has something to do with major reforms within the LDP or Abe’s charisma (many Japanese are impressed by neither), Japan’s political currents are primarily driven by disappointment in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda may be the best of three successive DPJ leaders since taking control of the country in 2009, he could feel the full brunt of electoral frustration at the next election, as early as November but no later than next summer.

The DJP gained power three years ago with inflated expectations. The party was only established in 1998 by former LDP kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. Three years ago, Ozawa could take comfort in his revenge against the LDP; today, there is political irony in that the beleaguered Ozawa’s decision to bolt the party this past July had the principal effect of undermining Noda’s political power.

Although the DPJ touts the slogan, “Restoring Vitality to Japan,” its present trajectory is one of rapid deceleration. This sets the stage for Abe to lead the LDP to form a new coalition government in the coming months. And although he, too, mostly likely will not be able to win an outright majority, he is poised to assemble an historic constellation of conservative forces.

The first partnership will be with the brand new Restoration Party, created by 43-year-old Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. Hashimoto’s meteoric rise is due mostly to dashed expectations over DPJ reforms, and his main prescription is to transfer more power from the central government to Japan’s separate states.  But the mayor recently strayed into the realm of national security by calling for Japan to overturn its ban on the right to collective self-defense.

If Abe can win the next election, he would probably, regardless of what else he accomplishes, seek to restore Japan’s international right to self-defense, thereby departing from Japan’s constitutional renunciation of armed force in the wake of World War II. In this, he would not only have the support of conservatives within the LDP and the Restoration Party, but very possibly conservative defectors from the DPJ.

If such a move catalyzed a new conservative movement in Japan, Abe would also have a chance to bring about a long-awaited political realignment of the parties, along a sharper conservative-liberal divide. And if he failed, he would be remembered as the prime minister who sought to open a new chapter on Japan’s postwar international policy.

Abe’s recent promise to “build a strong and prosperous Japan” is a phrase redolent of the “rich nation, strong army” motto adopted by reformers in 19thCentury Japan. Just as nationalists were frustrated with the weak, inward policies of the Tokugawa shogunate, today a conservative coalition is being propelled by what most Japanese see as flagrant assertiveness on the part of China. North Korea’s past abduction of Japanese, and its continuing efforts to build more missiles and nuclear weapons, also remind Japan that it needs not just to be loved, but also to be feared. Although Abe might not exactly resurrect the Samurai spirit, he would seek to make Japan a “normal” nation, capable of using force more akin to other powers.

This turn rightward, however, would not likely sit well with Japan’s neighbors, especially China, and could embroil the world’s three richest countries in conflict. Similarly, a more assertive Japan could also heighten tensions with South Korea; Seoul and Tokyo had been expanding security ties until recent disputes rekindled deep Korean concerns about Japanese revisionism. The United States would be caught in the middle of disputing allies rather than helping to mobilize the region to counter shared threats, including North Korea.

Here is one plausible scenario for conflict is the East China Sea, where Japan administers the Senkaku Islands, which were handed over from the United States four decades ago and administered by Japan since the late 19th century before that. Beijing claims these Diaoyu Islands are historically theirs, and in the past few months has dispatched civilian patrol and fishing vessels to and around the islands.

China’s probing of disputed territories and their territorial seas have been tried in the South China Sea, too. Earlier this year, the Philippines de-escalated tensions around disputed Scarborough Shoal, only to find Chinese civilian vessels emerging with de facto control of the horseshoe-shaped outcrops and the surrounding waters. While China has sought to stake out a legal claim and ensure that the areas were seen as definitely in dispute, the ratcheting up of tensions in the East China Sea could make it hard for either China or Japan to step back in a crisis.

Indeed, some Japanese believe that only Abe will stare down Chinese leaders and force them to back off – the same way he reportedly ignored Foreign Ministry admonitions against his assertive policies several years ago. Likewise, an emboldened China, having successfully coerced the Philippines, may believe that a hardline policy could force Japan to abandon its newfound machismo.  The result could be a deadly game of chicken, with the United States forced to decide how to both make good on its alliance commitment to Japan while preserving peace with China.

Even if the island issue does not escalate, however, Japan under Abe would likely pursue other conservative issues with vigor. For instance, an Abe administration would likely double down on developing marines within the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. U.S. Marines have been training and exercising with Japanese forces, which are acting on a 2010 defense plan to place greater priority on Japan’s southwestern group of the Ryukyu Islands (the Nansei Shoto). Next year, Japan will join Australian forces exercising with the Marines in Dawn Blitz 2013, which will stage amphibious landings off of California.

Japan’s rightward political shift may also break other barriers, including the traditional political limitation of spending only 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defense. Prime Minister Noda ended the historic ban against exporting defense materiel, and no doubt this new policy would be more assiduously tested. And Abe might expand efforts on missile defenses, cashing in on Noda’s recent decision to deploy a second X-band radar critical for identifying and potential hitting missiles. Finally, while local tensions on Okinawa over finding a replacement facility for Futenma Marine Corps Air Station might remain, the government in Tokyo would probably take a firmer policy line toward supporting an agreed upon alliance plan for continuing the presence of U.S. forces.

One senior Japanese politician recently lamented that Japan had lost its fighting spirit because for too long it has been “America’s mistress.” Although a second Abe administration would be dedicated to preserving America’s security umbrella, it would also pose new challenges for a United States that has been unaccustomed to a vigorous independent policy line emanating from Tokyo.  The implications for the region are immense.