The following is the memo that I typed out on Wednesday for a Thursday talk-and-Q&A lunch for a group of people from the embassies in Tokyo. I did wind up doing a lot of talking regardless, and we never got to item 4. I am conceited enough to think top believe the courteous post-session comments to the effect that I came across as both entertaining (YES!) as well as thought-provoking.
In the interests of brevity and in view of the fact that I am a poor impromptu public speaker but a reasonably competent conversationalist, I have whacked out the following mini-essays based on the talking points that Ms. Yuka Tatsuno at the British Embassy for you to read beforehand to a) decide whether or not I am actually worth listening to and b) save the session for further elaboration (if someone of you arrive without prior reading, it will have the added benefit for me of having my lunch while it is still warm), on those or any other matters that are of interest to you.
March 11, 2015 Jun Okumura
1. The Legal Framework for National Security (The post-budget authorization legislative process; Japan’s post-legislation role)
Only legislation that secures the consent of Komeito will be submitted. This means that a) enactment is only a matter of time and b) little will change in Japan’s national security policy as the result. But turn your eyes away from the legislative process, and you will see more substantial changes going on that have more geopolitical significance.
Much of the discussions revolving around a) the legislative and administrative consequences of efforts to expand the scope of Japan’s military efforts through, among other things, the reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution to allow collective self-defense and b) the longer-term efforts to amend the constitution to provide a sounder footing for the Japanese military and its activities are politically important but are of very limited practical significance. Vastly more significant from the national security and geopolitical perspectives are the Abe administration’s efforts to a) enhance Japan’s security relationships with countries sharing “common values including a belief in peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and the promotion of sustainable development” through regular two-plus-two (foreign and defense ministers) arrangements and b) embed Japan more deeply into the military-industrial complex based in those countries. Let me explain.
First, let’s take a look at the practical consequences of the ongoing legislative and administrative initiative. Even before the parameters of the eventual compromise between Prime Minister Abe and the LDP and Komeito emerge, any Japanese involvement in the fight against Islam State (ISIL) beyond the humanitarian assistance currently being provided has been ruled out by Mr. Abe. In fact, the only area of agreement on the “international contribution” front is logistics in areas where fighting has ceased. The rules for engagement by force is being somewhat eased, but the JSDF will almost remain unable to come to the rescue of their non-Japanese cohorts under fire. Beyond the fact that new individualized legislation will not be required in case situations like the After-war in Iraq and the pirates of Somalia present themselves, the only meaningful change on the ground appears to be that the JSDF will no longer have to limit logistic support to whatever they have till now have had to provide under the guise of transporting non-military personnel and materiel.
There is somewhat more on collective self-defense, with expansion beyond the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty to include other allies. Still, any military assistance in the course of self-defense will continue to be limited to the service of defending Japan. So sorry, Australia, but if “The Coalition Nations” come a-calling, you will be on your own as far as Japan is concerned. The exchange for extraterritorial acts of self-defense per se of the “situations in areas surrounding Japan” for phrasing without geographical constraints when “dealing with imminent unlawful situations where the people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is fundamentally overturned due to an armed attack by a foreign country,” combined with an expansion of interdiction authority, will bring real change. But here again, actual war zones beyond the “areas surrounding Japan”—read the Hormuz Straits—are likely to be assiduously avoided.
All this is surely much less than half of the full loaf that Prime Minister Abe or the majority of LDP legislators want. The reason for this remarkable restraint is twofold: a) Komeito, the electorally indispensable junior coalition partner, will not stand for more; and b) the Japanese public taken collectively is very reluctant to support overseas military ventures even within a UN collective context. These two constraints are insurmountable in the foreseeable future. The LDP could conceivably pass more ambitious legislation with the cooperation of Toru Hashimoto’s Japan Innovation Party. But it will not be able to do so without rupturing the coalition with Komeito and encouraging the emergence of a viable and more pacifist-minded opposition. If this were all that there was, the geopolitical impact would be largely cosmetic, a rhetorical tool for Mr. Abe’s opponents at home and abroad to bludgeon him with. But Japanese accumulation of bilateral 2-plus-2s and engagement in the world of the international industrial and military complex tell a different story.
Japan has been adding 2-plus-2s, regular bilateral meetings of cabinet members holding the foreign and defense portfolios to coordinate security policy, to the original arrangement with the United States. The process began with Australia (2007), and has added India (2010), Russia (2013), before the events that led to President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine), France (2014), and the U.K. (2015). (Indonesia seemed to be in the works, but the current president’s plans are unknown to me.) I run the risk of seriously overstating the importance of these alliances. After all, Russia never was an ally of Japan in the balmiest of times, never will be in the foreseeable future, and India like is unlikely to throw in its lot unconditionally with Japan. That said, other than Japan and China, these two countries are the ones that matter most in Asia-ex Middle East, and both see China as a source of direct long-term geopolitical risk. The United States aside, Australia, France and the U.K. have historically been the countries that are most likely to engage in extraterritorial military interventions in areas that are of undeniable interest to Japan in terms of national security. Given the significant backup support Japan has been providing, at least in financial terms, to joint military undertakings in geographical locations of varying national interest, the modest uptick in the involvement of the JSDF in those undertakings, and, as I will now hold forth on, the engagement in the world of the international industrial and military complex mean that these 2-plus-2s will gain increasing significance over the long run.
In 2013, the Abe administration replaced the long-standing “the Three Principles on Arms Exports and Their Related Policy Guidelines,” a virtual ban on arms exports that had been relaxed for specific items, almost exclusively for the United States, over the years with a new set of principles on overseas transfer of defense equipment and technology entitled “the Three Principles of Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology.” This change has been accompanied by active efforts to compete for Australia’s submarine replacements and new maritime rescue seaplanes. Future Japanese work on the F-35 stealth fighter has a real chance of being reflected in its development for sales in the global market. More modest joint efforts are reportedly afoot with the U.K. and France. Much of such efforts require involvement in international weapons consortiums, bringing Japan more fully into the sphere of the international industry-military complex. This is a turn of events that take Japan beyond rhetoric and rare events and more deeply into the world of security in the narrow sense, a world where actions have real, day-by-day consequences. This in turn is likely to give more substance to the 2-plus-2s, as, for example, sticky issues such as theater of use and sales to third parties will have to be worked out. It is notable that China and, to a lesser extent, Russia are largely quarantined here beyond the purchase of turn-key systems. How good is this technology? Good enough to build some of the most high-spec conventional-fuel submarines in the world, good enough to develop its own version of a stealth fighter aircraft, and backed by a cutting-edge industrial and technological base for potential. Japan is a huge prize for the international weapons consortiums, from which China and Russia are almost completely excluded beyond what they can buy or, um, borrow.
Finally, the bilateral security ties and the weapons consortiums are mutually reinforcing. The multiyear commitments inherent to the relationships ensure that they will endure all but the most extreme of regime changes on either side. Growth and permanence: What more can Mr. Abe wish for?
Have I overemphasized the importance of the latter, non-legislative efforts in order to make my point? That is for you to decide. But there is no denying that they must be of significant concern to countries whose geopolitical interests come into conflict with Japan and, more broadly, the countries with which Mr. Abe is reinforcing mutual ties.
2. The Japan-China-South Korea Relationship(s) (Japan-South Korea dialogue; the substance of Mr. Abe’s 70th anniversary statement)
There will be no bilateral summitry with South Korea until the 70th anniversary speech is over and done with. Who knows what he’ll say, though I am confident that Mr. Abe’s minders will stage manage a formula for his statement that will be acceptable by a South Korea president. But can Mrs. Park be that president? (My thoughts have changed somewhat since I wrote that last sentence weeks ago.)
Of the three national leaders, President Park Geun-hye has the weakest hand. Note also that South Korea is the smallest country of the three, and is under the most serious security of all in the form of North Korea, 80 kilometers from national capital Seoul. More immediately, the South Korean economy is in poor shape, her political team has been beset with a series of scandals, and her support is down to the conservative core, hovering around the low 40% to mid-30% in national polls. Yet given the harshness of national opinion toward Japan and the Abe administration on history issues, Mrs. Park has minimal wiggle room for compromise to begin with.
President Xi Jinping has by far the best job security of all three. He is halfway through presumably the first of two five year terms, putting his political enemies on the run or eliminating them altogether through reassignments and corruption charges, and is plowing ahead with far-reaching economic reforms while continuing the decades-long expansion of China’s military power and projection. (The long-term outlook for Mr. Xi and China come across as being far more uncertain than is generally appreciated. We can go into this in more detail if you so desire.) He appears to be a popular figure, at least with the masses, and also has much better control over the conventional and social media, which he could use to minimize the political fallout from any compromise with Mr. Abe on history issues in the interests of rapprochement. That said, Japan and China have competing geopolitical interests. China is the potential regional hegemon; Japan is big enough to offer meaningful resistance with help from the global and New World hegemon United States. Moreover, public sentiment in China toward Japan on history issues is genuine, if stoked and exaggerated by CCP propaganda and education. (The Chinese people suffered most, followed by the Japanese, with residents of the Korean Peninsula (with no U.S. carpet bombing and no Imperial Army draft) coming in a distant third.) China is taking a loss on tourism due to the animosities; likewise some of the shrinkage in Japanese investment is attributed to the negativities. But history issues are but one of the problems in the way of more Japanese involvement in the Chinese economy If the others are taken care of—a big if—the economic consequences of history issues will seem trivial, at least from the Chinese side. Xi has the least incentive to back off.
Mr. Abe actually has the easiest hand of all. All he needs to do is to refer explicitly and positively to the Murayama and Kono Statements, as all his predecessors have done as required and repeat a few key phrases there, then move on. But on a subjective level, that is very difficult for him to do, because he does not seem to believe in the spirit, much less the words, of the statements. Perfunctory acknowledgement, accompanied by gaffes when pushed, seems to be the best that he can offer. And that only because he is intelligent enough to be aware that rejection of the statements are inimical to Japanese national interests as defined by political realism. He is most capable of compromise, yet personally, surely least inclined. As the impact on the economic relationships, particularly with China, has stabilized, with the history issues increasingly quarantined, he might as well settle in for the long run and try to wait it out.
Luckily for the rest of us, who would prefer an easing of tension, Washington largely feels the same way, and has been willing to weigh in, if gingerly, to protect its own national interests. When Washington speaks, whether from the White House and its agents or from Capitol Hill, Tokyo listens. And it so happens that Mr. Abe is looking to visit Washington in May, during the Golden Week Diet break. That means that he will deliver his 70th anniversary speech there, most preferably in Congress, as his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi and political mentor Junichiro Koizumi did. That, more than anything else, will dictate what he will say.
If all goes well, Mr. Abe will deliver a speech that will pass muster with Congress—where a single member could put a hold on a House/Senate appearance—which in turn will be deemed acceptable in China and perforce in South Korea. And a subsequent trilateral—and eventually bilateral with Mrs. Park—will come off. And the investment climate will see a modest improvement; the geopolitical relationships somewhat less, particularly with regard to Japan-China.
3. The Unified Local Elections (The impact on the national political process)
There will be little impact on the national political process since the high-profile elections by and large feature strong incumbents and/or candidates who enjoy bipartisan support. But is that all that matters in the Unified Local Elections? And isn’t there a May vote that can have a greater impact on national politics?
Only 10 out of the 47 prefectural governor’s offices are scheduled for the upcoming Unified Local Elections in April. (The others dropped out one by one over the years as death and resignations (bribery charges being an uncomfortably common cause) took their toll. In only two of those—Hokkaido and Oita—is the DPJ supporting candidates to oppose the LDP-supported incumbents. It is improbable that the Hokkaido challenger. The Oita challenger does have a fighting chance, since he is the incumbent mayor of Oita City, the capital of the prefecture and by far its largest city. Remember that one big reason for the LDP loss in the recent Saga gubernatorial was the fact that its candidate had been a small-town, if successful, mayor in a prefecture where local connections still matter very much.
But that’s it. The best-case scenario for the DPJ is one out of 10. The DPJ is reportedly also having difficulty fielding large numbers of candidates for the prefectural and municipal assemblies, much as it had to refrain from contesting many House of Representative seats in the December election even where the Japan Innovation Party (JIP), its temporary ally of convenience was not putting up its own. And speaking of the JIP, its prospects do not look much better either, as party head and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s act is wearing thin on the national stage. The recent cabinet and subcabinet member scandals have taken more luster off the Abe administration, but the situation is such that the DPJ and JIP could take a modest loss in the assemblies, bundle it with a victory in the Oita gubernatorial and credibly claim more than a moral victory.
But none of the plausible outcomes will sway national policymaking in a significant way. Much is made of the connection between the power of the agricultural voting machine and its effect on agricultural reform and TPP. But the Abe administration never did come to grips with the core issues of agricultural reform—essentially a legal framework that encourages land hoarding and discourages corporate farming; I will be happy to hold forth in more detail—settled for cosmetic devolution to prefectural cooperative associations from the national federation Zenchu and tinkering with the membership of the prefectural agricultural commissions, where the local decision-making powers are concentrated. As for TPP, the deal is largely in place. All that is needed are TPA and the approach of the U.S. election season to remind the parties to cut the final deals against a looming deadline. U.S. pushing back the TPA timeline makes it that much easier for the LDP to skirt the issue during the April elections in Japan.
Let’s talk about a more interesting vote, a vote that will have a material impact on the realignment prospects of the opposition. Here, I am referring to the May 17 Osaka City referendum on the Metropolitan Osaka initiative that Mayor Hashimoto is pushing. The initiative will essentially divide up the city of Osaka into special wards, much like in Metropolitan Tokyo, and spilt the current municipal powers between the prefecture and the newly-created special wards. Hashimoto’s star will be further diminished if the initiative is voted down. That in turn will strengthen the hands of the more opposition-minded Diet members, who are more inclined to seek accommodation with the DPJ. (Hashimoto is more kindly disposed toward the national ruling coalition for tactical, strategic and ideological reasons.) The effect will not become evident immediately, but it will offer a glimmer of hope to the DPJ and most other forces seeking to construct a viable alternative to the LDP-Komeito coalition. And my understanding is that the initiative does not have the support of a majority of Osaka residents.
4. Quo Vadis, O Abe? (How much longer will Mr. Abe ride high in the polls? The September LDP President election? Who will be the next prime minister?)
a) The Abe administration will rumble along around 50% in the polls unless something happens that attaches the hard-to-eradicate stench of incompetence and/or unlikability on it. But can anyone foresee discontinuities on a more than random basis?
b) Maybe someone like Taro Kono will stand, just to avoid reelection by acclamation. But will it matter?
c) If the LDP rules of the game are followed in 2018 and the political landscape has not been swept by some tidal wave, it will be Shigeru Ishiba’s to lose. But will Mr. Abe have a say in this?
a) The Abe administration has seen some recent erosion of public support due to ongoing series of political financing scandals that have already claimed three cabinet members, two right before the December election, another more recently, as casualties, and some real-world consequences in the form of delays in the legislative schedule. (It may seem silly, but in the highly ritualized world of Japanese parliamentarian process, tie lost is hard to regain, even if it may still seem like an administration’s heaven to the Obama administration.) If this continues, it will become a little harder to move forward with Mr. Abe’s legislative agenda. But only a little. Beyond the time lost, the LDP will not waver (to the extent that it does not already put a brake on his most ambitious initiatives), and Komeito will continue to accept what it can swallow, and only what it can swallow.
The numbers will begin to edge up slowly once the scandals have played out sufficiently for the media to let go, and the economy finally gives the appearance of returning to a firm upward trajectory on all fronts, not just for the major corporates and their stakeholders. But always make room for discontinuities. For example, if the prospective May speech is well-received in the United States—fingers crossed—look for a meaningful bump on the scale of the political scandals, but on the upside.
b) Either way, barring some political catastrophe that robs Mr. Abe of legitimacy, it is difficult to foresee a serious candidate challenging him in the September LDO leadership election. The main possibilities—Shigeru Ishiba, Fumio Kishida, and, though a stretch, Sadakazu Tanigaki are coopted with attractive sinecures and will see no upside to staging a challenge. (Now the incumbent, do not think that Mr. Abe will placate opponents with attractive consolation prizes, as he did the last time around.) No, Yoshimasa Hayashi is not a serious candidate, since he has failed to secure a Lower House seat, and he now has the MAFF portfolio back again. I can see someone like Taro Kono offering token resistance, but only because there will be no consequences for him.
c) The four heads of the LDP that followed after Junichiro Koizumi stepped down essentially went down the roster of candidates considered viable for the job in the order of their political strength. All but the last became prime minister except for the last, Mr. Tanigaki, who was too weak to resist once the DPJ blood in the water excited other, more powerful candidates including Mr. Abe, who wound up winning. Mr. Ishiba by contrast has much greater political capital than Mr. Tanigaki and thus unlikely to be denied his place in the chronological order of political things.
Is there no way that Mr. Ishiba can be denied? For that, we must look to Mr. Abe’s own ascent to the prime minister’s office in 2006. His only previous cabinet appointment was less than a year as Chief Cabinet Secretary right up to his election as prime minister. Before that, he had spent a year as secretary-general of the LDP but resigned when the LDP suffered a setback in the 2004 House of Councilors election. There was no way that he could have become prime minister at the time without the unconditional support of Prime Minister Koizumi, who was going out on a high note and more over was the virtual head of the most powerful faction in the LDP. That faction, not coincidentally, was Mr. Abe’s faction, and it is even more powerful now. Could Mr. Abe be in a position to engineer such a transition himself? Will he be inclined to do so? Hints, one way or the other, will be available after the September LDP leadership election, when he should be tweaking his cabinet and party appointments. Stay tuned.