Collective Defense: Abe’s New Security Plan

Since the end of World War II, Japan has relied on the United States for its security, an arrangement enshrined in the US-written Japanese Constitution of 1947 and augmented by subsequent agreements between the two allies. Article IX of the Constitution prohibits Japan from taking part in any conflict or building a traditional military. (When President George H. W. Bush organized the “coalition of the willing” against Iraq in 1991, Japan was able only to offer financial assistance because of this stipulation.) But with the rise of China and its assertion of sovereignty in regions Japan claims as its own, Tokyo has begun to expand its military capability. Some government officials wonder how these moves will affect relations with the United States, Japan’s protector for the last half-century.

Ties between the two allies go deeper than security. The countries are each other’s fourth-largest trading partner, and Japan sends many of its best students to American universities. As of 2012, Japanese companies had more than $300 billion invested in the US, while US private investment in Japan was $134 billion.

One result of this ingrained relationship is that Japan has historically been strongly pro-US, ranking as the most pro-US country in the world as recently as 2011, according to an annual Pew survey. Yet by 2013, as Tokyo sensed a new vulnerability in its own neighborhood and a new sense of uncertainty in American foreign policy, Japan fell to fourteenth on the list of most pro-US countries, its lowest position since this question began being asked in 2006. Japan, like many allies of the United States in the region, is increasingly skeptical of America’s willingness to execute its commitments to protect Japan in particular. I heard this from a wide array of Japanese government officials and foreign policy experts I spoke with in a visit to the country in May.

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As China pairs its growing naval power with hostile rhetoric and fleet maneuvers, Japan’s Abe government is poised to respond by rebuilding and expanding the country’s modest defense forces.

This growing doubt about the US has provided a significant tailwind for the national security reforms and buildup of the country’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed to expand Japan’s ability to defend itself. “Syria” is a common one-word answer given by Japanese policymakers to the question “Why do you think the US may not put its navy between the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Chinese navy?” Another answer is less ambiguous: “Because the US thinks its relationship with China is more important than its relationship with us.”


Both of these answers make sense. President Obama asked Abe to publicly support a US intervention in Syria, and Abe did so at a domestic political cost. So when Obama did an about-face, according to what I was told, Abe felt betrayed and the relationship between the two leaders has been weaker since. Recent trips to Japan by Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attempted to salve the insult with strong statements about the US commitment to fulfilling its security obligations to Japan. They were well received, especially comments affirming America’s belief in Japan’s administrative control over the Senkaku Islands, which China also claims. Yet at the same time, many still worry privately that in the case of a future conflict between Japan and China, Obama would not act immediately but rather seek permission for a US intervention from a possibly reluctant Congress, as he had planned to do with Syria.

Of course, America has no treaty obligations to Syria, as it does with Japan, and it is unlikely Obama would not uphold the formal and explicit commitments the US has to Japan, and unlikely, too, that Congress would allow the president to leave Japan unprotected in a conflict. But Japanese fears about China are better founded. After all, China’s influence and economic importance have risen as Japan’s have fallen. With its stagnated economy, crippling energy bills, and rapidly aging population—the country will shrink to one-quarter of its current size by 2100 if trends continue—Japan’s benefits to the US are less obvious the farther one looks into the future.

This insecurity over its own attractiveness as an ally to the US is one driver of Abe’s decision to begin a slow-motion military buildup. A critical piece of Abe’s proposed reforms is called “Collective Self-Defense,” which would allow Japan for the first time in its postwar history to participate in multilateral military and security operations (though it will at least initially be limited to defensive operations). In part, this buildup is a performance for the United States, which Japan wagers is stretched by its Pacific “pivot” and would welcome some help in Southeast Asian operations.

An increasingly unpredictable North Korea is another reason for Abe’s security and defense moves. The US continues to isolate Pyongyang, which is also on poor terms with China, but Abe is concerned that a more cut-off North Korea is a more dangerous North Korea. His proposal for Japanese membership in the Six Party Talks was rejected, depending on whom one talks to, by the US or China. His fallback plan has been an attempt to improve North Korea–Japan relations by bartering an easing of some Japanese sanctions on Pyongyang for more information on Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. In early July, Abe lifted some of Japan’s sanctions on North Korea after the Kim regime agreed to form a high-level committee to reinvestigate the cases of the suspected kidnapped. If the committee successfully identifies some of these people, an Abe trip to Pyongyang may be in the cards if he can barter for their release or the return of their remains, and if he is willing to risk the wrath of the US for what would be regarded as an undermining of its North Korea policy.

On the domestic scene, Abe’s proposed changes to national security and Japan’s defense forces face challenges. His new strategy requires either a change to Article IX or a “reinterpretation” of what exactly it means. At the beginning of July, Abe took the first step of securing approval from his cabinet of a resolution outlining the shift, but he must eventually secure parliamentary approval.

Abe enjoys more than fifty percent public support as prime minister, but support for amending Article IX is weaker. A big reason for Abe’s rosy approval ratings is the general sense that his economic policies (“Abenomics”), which are seen as having had generally positive effects thus far, are the last best hope for the country’s struggling economy. The Japanese public is taking longer to come around to his foreign policy, which is formidably challenged by almost seventy years of pacifism-oriented nationalism.

Abe knows that in order to win support for reinterpretation he needs his economic policies to work, or at least be viewed favorably. Therefore, he has used much of his political capital putting those in motion first, and will use the return on that capital to build the case for reinterpretation following the upcoming elections. But according to several Japanese political commentators I spoke with, Abe may not feel he has enough public support before elections this fall for Abe to secure the two-thirds support he needs in the National Diet, Japan’s legislature, to win constitutional reinterpretation.

If Abe fails to secure the reinterpretation and the Collective Self-Defense, it will disappoint the US and also further embolden the Chinese to drive up the cost of America’s treaty obligations to Tokyo. The Japanese have a low regard of big government initiatives in general, and major foreign policy changes, such as the beefing-up of the Japanese security forces, are particularly regarded with skepticism. Still, China’s creeping expansion and increasing aggressiveness as helping Abe make his case to the Japanese public, which also believes that the US is gradually losing power and influence. The dynamics at play—Japanese domestic politics, US support, regional relations, and Chinese and North Korean actions—are fluid and unpredictable. All it may take is a collision or altercation between Japanese and Chinese naval vessels, or a North Korean missile test that comes too close to home, for support for Abe’s military initiatives to jump.


For a while after Abe announced his new vision for Japanese national security and the Self-Defense Forces, many in the Obama administration were undecided about whether it was China or Japan that was responsible for growing tensions. As China provoked confrontations with Vietnam and the Philippines, the administration got on board with Japan’s upgrades. Yet it will take more than that to restore regional security and stability.

A strengthened SDF, enabled by a more aggressive national security policy, does pose a legitimate military threat to China, and although Japan’s actions have been undertaken in response to Chinese escalation, they will surely be cited by China as another reason for continuing its current military march. Just how antagonistic the Japanese are perceived to be will no doubt influence the nature of America’s support for Japan.

Worrying for Washington is that Abe’s strategy is focused on threats from China and North Korea and does nothing to improve the shaky and underdeveloped relations it has with its other neighbors. And crucially, there is no communication between Japanese leaders and their counterparts in China and South Korea, a regional consideration that will become even more acute if Abe is successful with his Collective Self-Defense because it will revive memories of violent Japanese expansionism of the past.

For Abe’s strategy to bolster Japanese and American interests at the same time, while also improving regional stability, both countries have to coordinate very closely, privately and publicly. Abe will get a boost in public support for constitutional reinterpretation if the Japanese believe that America is behind him. America is the “collective” in Collective Self-Defense, and if the plan goes into action, it needs to demonstrate to China and other suspicious neighbors that while Washington backs Tokyo’s new strategy, it can also influence Japanese decisionmaking.

A new security and defense structure is vital for the Japanese, but it brings risks that Tokyo alone cannot manage. Strengthening Japan and helping its neighborhood achieve greater stability will be an uphill climb for Japan and America, and one cannot make the trek without the other.

Aaron Menenberg is the congressional affairs fellow at the Israel Allies Foundation and a blogger for EconoMonitor, a Roubini Global Economics project. He is also a 2013–2014 Foreign Policy Initiative future leader in foreign policy.

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