The run up to the House of Councillors election in Japan, when opinion polls were already pointing to a victory by the ruling party, saw widespread speculation over a more robust foreign and defense policy by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This included the possibility of amending Article 9 of the Constitution. News of the election results only served to prompt renewed speculation. However, Abe’s first overseas trip after the polls — to Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines — seemed to confirm that Tokyo would proceed with a gradual and pragmatic “normalization,” rather than embark on radical change.
Tokyo’s defense policy continues to shift and pushes the boundaries of what was acceptable in the past. Self-Defense Forces capabilities are expanding, and this is an essential component of the growing coordination between the region’s maritime democracies.
The debate on the meaning of Article 9 of the Constitution is once again making headlines. Beyond the proposals for reinterpretation, and even formal amendment, we can observe yet again practical policy moves crossing its boundaries. In part, these moves reflect the always difficult distinction between defense and offense. Another line which may be shifting is that between self-defense and collective defense.
At a meeting held on May 22 in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Filipino counterpart Albert del Rosario confirmed that Tokyo would be providing ten vessels to the Philippine coast guard “with an eye on China,” according to the Asahi Shinbun. The Philippines have long been considered among the weakest military powers in Southeast Asia, while Japan chose in the 1960s not to export weapons, as part of its postwar focus on economic reconstruction.
The return of Shinzo Abe to the Japanese premiership was expected to lead to renewed efforts to build ties with fellow democracies, albeit within a pragmatic framework designed not to give the appearance of an explicit containment policy vis-à-vis China. The early foreign trips by some key members of the administration, including Abe himself, to Southeast Asia, made it clear that this would indeed be on the agenda.
The long string of incidents off the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands this summer and the wider maritime territorial disputes in East and Southeast Asia have been overshadowing a major development with great potential implications for Japan: The northern sea route, linking East Asia with Europe through waters traditionally closed by ice to commercial navigation, are increasingly accessible during the Arctic summer thanks to the global warming.
If all goes well, one of China’s largest and most advanced patrol boats, the Haixun 31, should arrive in Hawaii on September 4 for cooperative exercises with the United States Coast Guard to “strengthen mutual understanding.” This will be the first time a Chinese patrol ship with helicopter-carrying capacity will dock in the United States.
Perhaps the law is a subject better left to lawyers and courts, but the reality is that the law often collides with international politics as well, so it can never be completely ignored. We couldn’t help but notice that there were two court cases this month in which a judge in a foreign nation made some claim upon Japan, but that the domestic reaction was entirely different.