Panov A.N. Foreign Policy Priorities of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Part II)

Foreign Policy Priorities of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Part II)

A.N. Panov

The opposition, especially the Democratic Party, during the debates in the parliament concentrated criticism on the fact that situations, in which the right to collective self-defense arise, are not specific, they allow different interpretations, and as a result, the government single-handedly able to determine the grounds for the use of armed forces within the framework of collective self-defense, as well as the scope and forms of such application. At the same time, the country's parliament can be placed before an accomplished fact and will have to approve the government's decision without any alternatives.

To reinforce the negative attitude towards the draft laws, the opposition attracted legal scientists who expressed the opinion that their content violated the constitution during the meetings of the special parliamentary commissions.

They were supported by two former leaders of the legislation bureau Reiichi Miyazaki and Masahiro Sakata. The first one directly stated about the violation of the constitution, and the second one noted that the aggravation of the situation in the Strait of Hormuz, as indicated by the government as an excuse for using the right to self-defense, by no ways jeopardizes the existence of Japan and draw a parallel how the so-called "Manchurian incident" was used to deploy Japanese military operations in China[1].

In response, the government invited its "experts" to the hearings, who tried to prove that collective self-defense could be carried out within the framework of the current constitution; that Japan, according to the international law, must protect its allies who have been subjected to an armed attack, even if Japan itself was not a target of such an attack, that "in the face of the Chinese military threat" it is necessary to adopt the appropriate legislation and thereby "create a strong Japanese-American Union"[2].

However, the number of opponents of new laws among academic scholars on constitutional issues, international law, and history significantly exceeded the number of those who supported the government.

Many intellectuals opposed these laws, including ten well-known Japanese cinematographers, who were supported by more than 400 directors and actors. They expressed concern that unconstitutional decisions open the way to drawing the country into war, and this inevitably leads to restrictions of human rights and freedom of creative activity. At the same time, they drew attention to the fact that the US repeatedly waged wars, including those in Iraq and Vietnam, "without any justification"[3]. And, thus, Japan can be dragged by Washington into the war, regardless of the interests of Japanese security. A group of dissidents also appeared in the ranks of the LDP.

On the eve of the vote, a protest demonstration was held in front of the parliament, which gathered more than 20,000 people.

On July 16, a group of the LDP leading figures, former ministers and leaders of the higher party bodies gathered a press conference where in fact they expressed disagreement with the accelerated adoption of new laws, describing the government's actions as "unforgivable". Some of the same MPs from the LDP expressed their dissatisfaction with the fact that they were absent during the vote.

A split in the media occurred. Liberal and centrist press, namely newspapers "Asahi", "Mainichi", "Tokyo" and even the traditionally conservative English-language newspaper "Japan Times" took a critical position. Right-conservative and nationalistic newspapers - "Yomiuri" and "Sankei" supported the policy of ensuring the right to collective self-defense. Justifying the government's policy, the newspaper "Yomiuri" estimated the new legislation as a "milestone event" which strengthens the alliance with the United States, makes it possible to prepare for defense in a more precise and effective manner, taking into account all levels of the crisis[4].

Despite the fact that according to public opinion polls, more than 80% of the Japanese did not approve the adoption of new legislation, and the Prime Minister himself admitted that its content was not sufficiently explained to the population (the government's rating immediately after the adoption of laws fell by more than 10% and reached 35% - the minimum level after its establishment in December 2012[5]), on July 16, 2015, one new law and another law amending the ten existing laws related to the country's security, were put to the vote in the House of Representatives and adopted by the majority Deputies from the LDP and from the Komeito party, its partner in the coalition. Deputies of the five opposition parties demonstratively left the debating chamber and did not participate in the voting.

The United States officially supported the adoption of new legislation and expressed satisfaction with the position of the Japanese government on this matter.

The White House welcomed the adoption of new laws, assessing them as evidence of the ongoing efforts to strengthen the bilateral alliance and to ensure Japan's more active role in regional and international security activities.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, also expressed his wish that the Japanese self-defense forces "put boots on the ground" in the event of a conflict on the Korean peninsula, and also support the operations of the US armed forces in the Middle East and in the South China sea[6].

Washington's satisfaction is not accidental. As predicted by many analysts, including the Japanese, the US, despite the widely announced strategy of "rebalancing" its strategy in the Pacific Rim, has not been able to significantly increase its presence, above all military, in the region due to the budget constraints and crisis situations in the Middle East. Thus, the support of American efforts by Japan proved to be very timely.

China gave an entirely different assessment. A representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China warned Tokyo against "shaking up regional peace and security" [7].

During the meeting with the Secretary of the National Security Council of Japan Shotaro Yachi on July 17, Minister of Defense of China Chang Wanquan said that new legislation that allows Japan to send troops abroad for the first time after World War II "will complicate regional security and global stability" and questions Tokyo's postwar commitment to "ways of peaceful development"[8].

The most critical reaction was set out in a comment by the Xinhua News Agency, which, as it is common in Chinese practice, reflects the position of the Chinese leadership and serves as a benchmark for the attitude of "all Chinese" to the events in Tokyo.

Condemning the adopted laws as a "nightmare scenario," it was concluded that "the reputation of a country that has earned international respect for its pacifist constitution is now tarnished" [9].

The Republic of Korea reacted with more restraint, as Seoul has to take into account allied relations with the United States and the North Korean factor. Nevertheless, the representative of the South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs appealed to Japan to "maintain the spirit of the pacifist constitution" and reminded that actions that could affect security on the Korean peninsula and the national interests of the Republic of Korea should not be undertaken without the consent of Seoul"[10].

On the way toward an "Alliance of Hope"

«The Alliance of Hope», - that's how Prime Minister S. Abe described the Japanese-American relations in his speech at a joint meeting of both chambers of the US Congress during his official visit to the USA in the last decade of April 2015.

Both Tokyo and Washington highly appreciated the results of the bilateral Summit at the highest level. However, the road to the consent of the parties did not look simple.

After S. Abe and his government came to the leadership, and after his statements about the intention to "rewrite history" and revise the constitution, initially Washington perceived the new Japanese leader cautiously and at times with disapproval[11].

American political and scientific circles often express opinions that the process of constitutional review in Japan, if it will be launched, may not stop at correcting certain provisions, but could lead to a radical reorganization of Japanese military policy and even a revival of militaristic sentiments. Memories of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and about brutal battles in the Pacific Ocean remain in the American public consciousness to this day. It is no coincidence that S. Abe's statements about "illegitimacy, injustice" of the decisions of the International Tribunal condemning the Japanese aggression and crimes of the Japanese wartime leaders were met with disapproval in Washington. A group of American veterans of the Second World War and their relatives sent a letter to members of Congress expressing concern over the statements of S. Abe, who denied the "official verdict of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East"[12]. The negative attitude of S. Abe towards the Japanese government's recognition in 1991 of ill-treatment of Korean women used by the Japanese military as sex slaves and apologies, expressed in this connection, was unacceptable for Washington, especially considering allied relations with Seoul and the presence in the United States of a serious Korean electorate.

The irritation was caused by the Japanese prime minister's visit to the "symbol of Japanese militarism" the Yasukuni Shrine in January 2013, immediately after the visit of the US vice-president Joe Biden to Tokyo, who "did not recommend" S. Abe to make this pilgrimage. As might be expected, China and the Republic of Korea subjected the Japanese leadership to severe criticism for "worshiping war criminals" when on April 22, 2013 168 deputies of the Japanese parliament visited the Yasukuni Shrine and thus beat a "record" of 1997 when the Shrine was visited by 152 deputies.

The demonstrative mass "march" of Japanese parliamentarians to the Yasukuni Shrine against the backdrop of the nationalist statements of Premier S. Abe on historical issues caused further discontent in Washington. The White House had to inform the Japanese government through the Japanese Embassy in the US about its concerns that such actions could, by causing criticism of Beijing and Seoul and other Asian countries, lead to destabilization of the situation in East Asia[13].

Shinzo Abe, apparently, expected that his statements of nationalistic character and visit to the Yasukuni Shrine would not cause serious rejection from the American side. It seems that the position of President George W. Bush was taken into account, who gave instructions not to publicly criticize the regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, since he was described as a "loyal supporter of the United States" [14].

Moreover, S. Abe believed that the determination to pursue the legislative consolidation of Japan's right to collective self-defense, i.e. to provide direct military support to the US armed forces, compensates for his rhetoric, as it should be well received in the White House.

According to the Japanese leadership, the Americans should have liked "measures, undertaken in order to strengthen Japan's military potential as a significant addition and support for the US strategy of "rebalancing".

In 2013, for the first time in the last 13 years, the Japanese government decided to increase the defense budget by 0.8% and build up the ground forces of self-defense by 18 thousand people. It was planned to create a Marine Corps, to add two more vessels of the same type to the existing two large helicopter-landing platforms, to strengthen control over the sea and air space around the islands in the East China Sea by using unmanned reconnaissance aircrafts and installing early warning radars. It was envisaged to purchase intermediate-range cruise missiles and Osprey-type convertiplanes, which the USA deploy at its base in Okinawa since 2012.

However, the Japanese prime minister did not take into account the mood of the US administration and the president himself during the initial period of his tenure as head of state. In that period, B. Obama aspired to appear as a "peacemaker", corresponding to the status of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Therefore, the abusive statements of S. Abe were able to complicate Japan's relations with its neighbors, primarily with China and the Republic of Korea, to sway the situation in the Asia-Pacific region and to impede the US policy of "involving and deterring" Beijing.

American political studies started to hold the thesis that Japan does not need to make changes to the constitution concerning its "peace provisions." At the same time, it was pointed out that Tokyo is already doing more than the main law allows, because over the past 20 years, many laws and administrative acts concerning the sphere of national security that significantly changed the Japanese defense policy were adopted. It is a different matter that Tokyo should provide the US with more help in their new strategy in the APR, show more solidarity and more integrate self-defense forces with US troops[15].

Shinzo Abe listened to the "friendly advice" of the White House and corrected his behavior. Visits by the head of the government to the Yasukuni Shrine were stopped, although offerings for the temple "on memorable dates" remained, as well as pilgrimages of the most "patriotically minded" deputies. In the course of the debate on the eve of the elections to the upper house of parliament in July 2013, S. Abe avoided touching upon the topic of constitutional review. He evaded the assessment of Japan's colonial and militaristic past, stating that the interpretation of history should be left to historians, and he is not in the position to give evaluation of historical events. Washington welcomed the statements of the Japanese Prime Minister, which he began to express since July 2015 and in which he claimed that his cabinet fully adheres to the positions set forth in the statements of Prime ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi.

At the same time, S. Abe laid an even greater emphasis on readiness to raise the level of cooperation in the military sphere with the United States and efforts to pass laws by the parliament that would give Japan the right to collective self-defense.

With enthusiasm and unusual activity, the government of S. Abe deployed the diplomacy of "containment policy" against Beijing by creating a belt of Japan-friendly countries around China that share Japanese concerns with the Chinese assertive foreign policy course in the APR.

Already in the first half of 2013, the head of the Japanese government paid visits to all the ASEAN countries, where during meetings at highest level he paid special attention to the establishment of bilateral cooperation in the military-political sphere and sought support for the Japanese position on the territorial issue with the PRC.

These actions did not go unnoticed in Beijing. The newspaper People's Daily (Rénmín Rìbào), in an editorial on July 14, 2013, described this Japanese diplomatic activity as an attempt "to attract some countries to confrontation, blockade and coercion against China". Obviously, this course will only complicate the possibility of a constructive dialogue between Japan and China.

During a meeting with the leaders of the sixteen Pacific countries in May 2015, S. Abe, in response to China's large-scale economic assistance to these small APR states, promised to provide them with $450 million in aid over three years. At the same time, Japanese aid was interpreted as "sincere", for the needs of the population, and Chinese was characterized as help in the interests of Chinese companies.

Such diplomatic activity was also considered in Tokyo as a joint strategy with Washington to encircle China with a "sanitary cordon" of countries that do not share Beijing's hegemonic aspirations in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Japanese prime minister presented Barack Obama with an important economic "gift" with considerable political meaning. Unlike the main European allies, including Britain, Germany, France, he said that Japan will not participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, created under the aegis of China, in which more than 50 states expressed their willingness to participate. Out of the large states, only the US and Japan refused membership in the Bank, but failed to prevent the creation of a new large financial institution that to a certain extent is a competitor of the Asian Development Bank under Japanese control. In order to compensate for the "loss of face", influence among Asian states and not to yield to Beijing, the government of S. Abe announced its readiness to provide them with five-year yen loans for the implementation of infrastructure projects in the amount of 110 billion dollars. (The amount is equivalent to the authorized capital of AIIB) [16].

S. Abe's behavior strategy with the United States gave its results. Attitudes toward the Japanese premier began to change. But still, on the eve of his visit to the US in the White House apparatus, and it was known to the Japanese, the Japanese Prime Minister was assessed in two ways. "Good" S.Abe strengthens the Japanese-American alliance and is determined to ensure the right to collective self-defense. The latter particularly impresses the American military, who regard him as "their man" in Tokyo, a reliable ally that fulfills the Pentagon's wishes more than his predecessors did. But there is also "not so good" S. Abe, who can not establish relations with China and the ROK, who with his "historical revisionism" creates instability in the region.

In the end, the opinion that the head of the Japanese government should be treated as a "good guy" outweighed. Indeed, he does a lot for American interests, in general he is a managed partner, and his "not the best" historical views should be taken into account, but not overloaded with criticism. Moreover, the measures have been taken to explain to S. Abe that his "unnecessarily" nationalistic views and actions the counterproductive for the effectiveness of Japanese interests in the APR[17].

The "narcotic" dependence of Japanese diplomacy on the American foreign policy strategy caused the "American disease" in the Japanese political elite. Its main symptoms consist of the fear of losing the "ally's disposition", that a powerful patron might one day betray his "younger friend" in favor of a new partner, and Japan will be unprepared to adapt to an unexpected situation and to face new challenges to its security independently.

Tokyo, with concern, and sometimes with anxiety, watched the debates over the "Chinese problem" that had unfolded since the beginning of the 21st century in Washington. The two-pronged policy that was ultimately determined by the Obama administration consisted of deterrence and simultaneously engagement of China as a "responsible member" in cooperation with the US overall suited Japan. Moreover, the White House reinforced its policy with the "rebalancing" strategy, according to which the US allied relations with a number of countries in the region, including Japan, are strengthened, and the American naval presence in the APR is growing.

At the same time, Japan is concerned more than Washington about building up of Chinese military capabilities and regularly at all levels, points to the need for China to exercise restraint, respect for international law and not use force to change the status quo in the region (first of all, Tokyo is referring to the bilateral problem of the Senkaku Islands).

This being said, the Japanese government, especially under the leadership of S. Abe, persistently seeks confirmation from Washington that the US side will fulfill its obligations under the "security treaty" and will defend Japan's territory in case of China's attempts to solve the territorial problem by force.

President Barack Obama and high-ranking officials at talks with their Japanese partners gave such assurances regularly. However, the Japanese political elite, including its pro-American part, draws attention to the fact that the US, while recognizing the administrative control of Japan over the Senkaku Islands, does not consider the question of who - Japan or China - owns sovereignty over them solved and suggest Tokyo and Beijing to settle this problem on a bilateral basis by peaceful means. Thus, adopting a dual position, the White House does not in fact share Japan's view that there is no problem with the Senkaku Islands in its relations with China, and therefore there is no need in any talks with Beijing on this matter.

Here's how the commander of the Pacific fleet Scott Swift formulated the task assigned to the US armed forces. At a press conference in Manila, he assured that the US armed forces are well equipped and ready to respond to many situations in the South China Sea, nevertheless he stressed that the US does not take sides in territorial disagreements, but will be forced to carry out operations to ensure freedom of navigation in disputed areas[18].

According to American sources, as quoted by Asahi newspaper, S. Abe, during an informal meeting with American politicians who visited Japan in late 2014 - early 2015, spoke in a sense that he can no longer rely on Washington on the Chinese issue. A similar opinion is common among Japanese prominent politicians and high-ranking diplomats[19]. With this in mind, Tokyo resorted to the favorite tactic of "exhaustion", when at every Japanese-American meeting, at any level, the Japanese representatives inevitably sought confirmation from the American partners of their ally's support on the Chinese issue. In turn, the Japanese assured of their loyalty to the alliance with Washington, in their readiness to strengthen military cooperation, up to the implementation of joint operations within the framework of collective security.

In the end, the Japanese accepted the fact that they should not expect more than they had received from the Americans in a territorial dispute, and they began to emphasize the US determination to protect the "whole territory" of Japan, including the Senkaku Islands.

In general, by spring 2015, the base for a successful visit of the head of the Japanese government to the United States was created.

At the same time, the Japanese side remained concerned by if not cool, then perhaps quite restrained reception of S. Abe by the American political elite of a liberal direction.

On the eve of the visit, leading American newspapers published articles, including editorials, criticizing the Japanese leader's views on Japanese history, and his determination to "whitewash the past". The material published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, dated April 27, was entitled "How History Haunts Shinzo Abe's Vision for Japan", which noted the need for him to overcome his views on the past. At the same time, it was pointed out that the "ambivalent approach" of the Japanese politician to the assessment of Japanese aggression during the Second World War increased tensions in Asia and aroused US distrust.

The Washington Post urged S. Abe to apologize for the suffering inflicted on Korean women[20].

Given such sentiments in American public opinion, S. Abe paid special attention to his speech in the Congress and its content. He managed to get an invitation to address members of both chambers, which was regarded as a "big victory", as for the first time since the speech of Nobusuke Kishi in Congress in June 1957 such privilege was granted to the Japanese premier (Junichiro Koizumi was refused because a group of members of Congress opposed it, motivating their refusal by his regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine).

The speechwriters of the Japanese prime minister tried to compose the text of his speech in both form and content, taking into account the audience as much as possible. S. Abe started his speech (he spoke in English and said that he had repeated the text so diligently and repeatedly that his wife even went to bed in another room) with assurances of his love for America in all its manifestations, expressed on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people deep condolences to the "souls of all Americans who died in World War II", expressed deep regret that "the Japanese actions brought suffering to the peoples of Asian countries".

He proposed a thesis that the former rivals - Japan and the United States - along with the Western world and other democracies won the Cold War and now can spread together around the world and strengthen common values of democracy and freedom.

Then, S. Abe set forth the main parameters of Tokyo's policy under the new slogan of "effective contribution" to ensuring peace and stability by taking greater responsibility by Japan[21]. It is for this purpose that Japan adopts new laws to ensure the right to collective self-defense. From further clarifications, it followed that ultimately this was done in order to further strengthen cooperation between the military of the two countries. As a result, the bilateral union will become more durable and "providing a credible regime in the interests of peace in the region".

Although China was never mentioned in the speech, it was clear that this passage was intended for Beijing.

Legislative officers liked the speech of the Japanese prime minister, it was repeatedly accompanied by their applause, although they did not hear the words "apology" and "aggression". There was no regret for the suffering of Korean women. S.Abe confined himself to a maxim on the theme that "women suffer most of all in military conflicts" and one should not violate their rights.

It is not a coincidence that the president of South Korea Park Geun-hye said that with such statements the Japanese prime minister missed an opportunity to improve relations between Tokyo and Seoul[22]. During the visit of S. Abe, demonstrations were held in Washington and other cities demanding to change the position of the Japanese government on the issue of "comfort women".

However, American political elite of understood the main thing: in the person of S.Abe, the United States has a devoted and loyal ally, who can be relied upon during implementation of its positions in the APR, and after the adoption of new laws in other regions of the world. The generous promise of the Japanese leader to allocate US $2.8 billion to modernize American bases on Guam was positively received.

At a joint press conference after the talks, Barack Obama tried to give pleasure to his Japanese ally. Noting that the US welcomes the peaceful rise of China, he also stressed that the Chinese are following a collision course if they think they can solve problems in the maritime areas by "flexing their military muscles" [23].

B. Obama more than cordially welcomed S. Abe. During a dinner at the White House, he read the haiku of his own composition; the tables were served not only with European cutlery, but also with chopsticks. The president raised his glass in a toast with sake made in the native prefecture of Prime Minister Yamaguchi, and not with a glass of champagne, thanked the Japanese for bringing karaoke and anime into the American culture.

The American president characterized the visit as "historic" and stressed that US-Japanese relations have never been so strong[24].

The official visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to the United States, on the one hand, summed up the adaptation of the American political elite to the political philosophy of S. Abe, and, on the other, determined the vector of the further development of the American-Japanese military-political union in the new international conditions.

Each country received not 100% of what it aspired, but quite a sufficient percentage to declare its success.

End of Part II (to be concluded)

Go to Part III


[1] Mainichi Shimbun, June 20, 2015.

[2] Mainichi Shimbun, July 18, 2015.

[3] Yomiuri Shimbun, July 17, 2015.

[4] Mainichi Shimbun, July 25, 29, 2015.

[5] Japan Times, May 19, 2015

[6] Japan Times, July 17, 2015.

[7] The Japan Times, July 18, 2015.

[8] The Japan Times, July 17, 2015.

[9] Ibid

[10] Mainichi Shimbun, July 8, 2015.

[11] The Japan Times, March 19, 2015.

[12] More than 300 thousand Americans died on the Pacific fronts, 20 thousand died in the Japanese captivity.

[13] Mainichi Shimbun, April 26, 2013.

[14] Paul Giarra, former Senior Country Director for Japan in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (http://ajw.asaki.com/article/forum/politics and economy/east asia a7.2013/0/7080

[15] The Japan Times, May 20, 2015.

[16] The Japan Times, April 4, April 11, 2015.

[17] The Japan Times, July 23, 2015.

[18] Asahi Shimbun, July 13, 2015.

[19] The New York Times, April 20, 2015.

[20] Washington Post, April 20, 2015.

[21] The Japan Times, April 29, 2015.

[22] http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/29.04.15

[23] Mainichi Shimbun, May 4, 2015.

[24] Mainichi Shimbun, July 13, 2015.