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.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s late May to Myanmar (Burma) has highlighted the scale of Japan’s interests in the country. These not only include trade, investment, and economic cooperation, but also comprise national security themes. Myanmar is home to key natural resources, offers cheap labor and untapped markets, and is located at a strategic crossroads.
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.
Since we are based in Tokyo and not in Washington DC, we may not be the best source available for understanding US government policy, even its policy toward Japan and Asia. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to notice that the Obama administration is taking an unexpectedly cool posture toward Shinzo Abe and his band, and that this is having a major political effect here as well. It is also obvious that the Obama policy toward Japan is radically different than what US policy was a decade ago under George W. Bush.
The third consecutive Japanese prime minister has embraced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and this time it is probably for real—at least as far as entering the negotiation process goes. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used his much-awaited visit with US President Barack Obama to crow a little bit about how he was “restoring” the US-Japan Alliance after the three dark years of the Democratic Party of Japan.
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.
After about a year of hanging about in the background, the issue of Japan’s participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations was suddenly thrust back into the front rank of political debate. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been in favor of Japan’s participation in TPP negotiations all along, as was his predecessor Naoto Kan. However, it appears that Noda decided to soft-pedal the matter late last year as he faced the daunting challenge of raising the national consumption tax, a divisive issue within the ruling party that he saw as the bigger priority.
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.