In an opinion paper recently published by The New York Times, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe called for a show of solidarity against the North Korean threat. In his view, “concerted pressure by the entire international community is essential,” and entails the full enforcement of the sanctions unanimously voted by the United Nations Security Council. Recognizing the importance of multilateral efforts in ensuring peace and security, Abe observed, however, that “prioritizing diplomacy and emphasizing the importance of dialogue will not work with North Korea.” In the face of previous episodes of non-compliance with international commitments and in light of the recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests, “more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end.”
As these words reveal, and despite the emphasis on multilateralism and on the role of international institutions, the message of Abe’s op-ed piece was strong and uncompromising, and reflected a new strategic doctrine that breaks with the past in fundamental ways. The “Abe Doctrine,” set out in a speech by the Japanese Prime Minister on January 18, 2013, is indeed revolutionary since it revisits Japan’s role in international affairs and means to reassert the country’s position as a regional great power. Yet, it may set in motion forces inside and outside of the country with considerable geopolitical and economic implications. The challenges that this strategic doctrine faces today are clearly visible in the context of the nuclear proliferation crisis in Asia.
The Growing Threat from North Korea
In a race with time, North Korea has made spectacular and unanticipated progress in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs with the ultimate goal of acquiring an effective deterrent able to strike as far as the continental United States and, especially, U.S. bases in the Pacific. In so doing, Pyongyang has sought, inter alia, to put to the test once more Washington’s longstanding alliances in the region, including that with Japan.
In what has been described as the most provocative missile testing to date, North Korean forces fired twice a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over Japan in just two months, setting up alarms and prompting alerts for affected populations to take shelter. In both cases, the missiles were launched from a site near Sunan, close to Pyongyang International Airport, overflew the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido at exoatmospheric altitudes and landed in the Pacific Ocean in international waters. The first missile, tested on August 29, flew to a range of 2,700 kilometers and reached an apogee of 550 kilometers, before splashing into the sea, some 1,180 kilometers off the Japanese coast. During the second test, on September 3, the missile’s range was of approximately 3,700 kilometers, while reaching an apogee of 770 kilometers over a flight time of 17 minutes.
For the government of Shinzō Abe, these two events were particularly troublesome. Whereas previously North Korea had fired over Japan only what its regime designated as “satellite launch vehicles,” this time the intent was openly hostile. With an eye to Guam, the real target, Pyongyang reached its double objective of showing off the technical capabilities of its ballistic missiles and of warning Japan that the military alliance with the United States comes at a cost. Furthermore, Kim Jong-Un was provocative enough, but stopped short of an act which would have justified a military response from Tokyo. An expert pointedly made the observation that the missiles’ trajectory “almost appeared to have been designed to allow North Korea to test its missiles to a longer range while overflying as little of Japan’s territory as necessary.” As a result, and absent a direct threat to its territory, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) did not attempt to intercept those missiles and chose to avoid a further escalation of the crisis.
The reasons put forward by many observers were the limited nature of Japan’s current ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems and the constitutional constraints on military action imposed upon Tokyo after the Second World War. Nonetheless, in recent years, both BMD capabilities and the domestic legal framework for the use of force have evolved under a new defense and security policy that is part and parcel of the Abe Doctrine. In reality, the reasons behind Japan’s restraint are far more complex and reflect Tokyo’s search for an optimal solution to address the North Korean threat in a world where international conflicts, domestic politics and the economy are intertwined.
Abe’s Ambitious Defense and Security Policy
Strategic doctrines are as much a product of time and culture as they are the translation of the vision on global affairs held by a state’s leadership. Many – if not all – leaders wish and often are expected to devise a grand strategy to provide peace, security and prosperity for their people. At the same time, grand strategy, as envisaged by Sir Basil Liddell Hart, must “coordinate and direct all resources of a nation” towards the goal defined by fundamental policy and “calculate and develop the economic resources and man-power of nations in order to sustain the fighting services.” The reality of the all-encompassing nature of this strategy and of the close link between economic development and defense spending is also reflected in Shinzō Abe’s policies since his return to power in December 2012.
First, on the economic front, Abe has advocated for the revival of the Japanese economy through the “three arrows” of “Abenomics” in its version 1.0 focused on overcoming deflation and, starting in 2015, version 2.0 aimed at increasing the labor force and productivity in a country with the highest life expectancy in the world, but with low birth rates. Second, he has championed for a return of national pride to boost domestic confidence and has favored a reinterpretation of Japan’s post-war history in a way that has been described by Christopher W. Hughes as “historical revisionism.” Finally, and of most relevance here, Abe has proclaimed that Japan is back in foreign affairs and needs to reconsider its defense and security posture, by affirming itself as a “normal” country and as an important contributor to international peace and security. A non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council at present, Japan ambitions to become in the not so distant a future one of its permanent members and has campaigned for United Nations’ reform for years.
Interestingly, the new Japanese defense and security policy follows, like Abenomics, three directions or “arrows”, namely bolstering defense capabilities, revamping the alliance with the United States and working to foster cooperation with other nations in the region and beyond.
The first arrow concerns the rebuilding of the Japanese military capabilities. Abe’s government began increasing defense spending for the first time in 2013 when the budget rose by a modest 0.8%, but boosts in the following years exceeded 2% and should reach 2.5% if the Defense Ministry’s request for the fiscal year 2018 is approved. The current request, which would hit a record ¥5.2 trillion, should ensure funding for the acquisition of advance technology weapons, such as the Aegis Ashore BMD system (the cost of which needs to be negotiated with the U.S. government), of new SM-3 Block IIA interceptors (¥47.2 billion), of the improved PAC-3 MSE missile for lower tier defense (¥20.5 billion), of an upgraded air defense radar network for the detection of missiles launched on a “lofted” trajectory (¥10.7 billion) as well as of six F-35A stealth fighters (¥88.1 billion) and of four Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft (¥45.7 billion). Japan also plans to invest in the development of a more robust space-monitoring system and to create a “space unit” to protect its space assets (¥4 billion).
These acquisitions are precisely made in response to the new security environment surrounding Japan. As stated in the country’s most recent Annual Defense Paper, “North Korea’s further progress in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles development through its fourth nuclear test and ballistic missile launches, coupled with repeated provocative rhetoric and behavior that disregard the international community, constitute serious and imminent threats to the security of the region including Japan and of the international community.” Most importantly, this “unprecedented, grave and imminent threat” has also justified policy revisions and reforms, including the establishment of a National Security Council, the adoption of a National Security Strategy and of a State Secrets Law, as well as the approval of new rules of engagement of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces permitting the exercise of collective self-defense and removing limits on activities in U.N.-led peace-keeping operations.
The latter point is particularly contentious. Since World War II, the Japanese people, by virtue of Article 9 of its pacifist Constitution, have undertaken forever to “renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” As a result, Japan has maintained for decades only troops destined to fight in case of aggression, hence the absence of an official army. In a major departure from the initial interpretation of the Constitution covering only individual self-defense within the meaning of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, Abe’s government decided in 2014 to approve a reinterpretation of Article 9 which extended the scope of this constitutional provision to collective self-defense, i.e., to the defense of allies under attack, primarily the United States.
It is, by the way, the strengthening of the historic alliance with Washington which constitutes the second major dimension of Tokyo’s security and defense architecture under Abe. This alliance, based on the 1951 Security Treaty between the United States and Japan, has been steadily developing in recent years and has been defined more and more as a relation between equal partners. In particular, in 2015 the two allies cemented their historic ties by issuing the revised Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, which henceforth allow Japan to come to the defense of other countries, albeit with the approval of the Japanese Diet. Furthermore, in January 2016 the United States and Japan signed a new five-year package of host nation support for U.S. forces in Japan.
The sweeping changes mentioned above, notably with respect to the legal framework, represent a remarkable departure from the policy adopted in post-war Japan by then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. In contrast with the Yoshida Doctrine’s emphasis on economic development and reliance on U.S. security guarantees, the Abe Doctrine promotes a proactive foreign policy in addition to a more ambitious and autonomous security and defense posture. The objective is to expand international relations, especially with Japan’s neighbors within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and to enhance the country’s ability to transform geopolitical challenges into opportunities. Abe’s strategy demonstrates, as observed elsewhere, that the Japanese Prime Minister is not so much an ideologue and a nationalist as he is a realist and a pragmatist. In particular during his second term in office, he has preferred realpolitik to the ideologically-driven “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” foreign policy promoted by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Tarō Asō, in order better to protect Japan’s national interests abroad.
The rapprochement with Russia is, undoubtedly, the most spectacular example of this pragmatic approach to global affairs. In spite of the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, which fell to Russia after 1945 and now house Russian military installations, Moscow and Tokyo have continually tried to improve their relations, focusing their cooperation on energy, investment and security. At the end of 2014, Japan had become the Asian country with the largest volume of direct investment in Russia and Tokyo’s investments in the Russian oil and gas sector alone more than tripled China’s total contributions. Inching closer to reconciliation, Shinzō Abe and the Russian President Vladimir Putin even struck a minor agreement to allow joint economic activity on the contested islands – “a milestone for the two countries, however small.” Furthermore, the balance of power in Asia is of common concerned to both Russia and Japan. Yet, this balance of power is currently under pressure and the Abe Doctrine may be part of the problem as well as of the solution.
The Many Challenges to the Abe Doctrine
The current Japanese foreign and security policy faces a series of risks, which need to be mitigated in order for Abe’s global strategy to be successful. Such risks exist at the geopolitical, economic and domestic levels, and are immediate.
On the geopolitical front, Japan must continue to confront China’s rising influence in the Asia-Pacific and protect its sovereign rights in the maritime domain. The latter issue is particularly sensitive since China regularly sends patrols near what Japan calls the Senkakus, but Beijing claims as its Diaoyu Islands. Relations with China have been strained for decades and the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future, despite efforts on both sides to rethink and stabilize their troubled ties. For the Abe government, the disagreements with Beijing add further instability in a region where security is more than ever a common – and increasingly fragile – asset. An assertive defense policy in Tokyo and enhanced cooperation with the United States, especially on BMD, are definitely not well perceived in Beijing. Although a useful leverage in convincing China to step up the pressure on North Korea, this evolution is also an additional irritant in the bilateral relation with Japan, as is the latter’s reinterpretation of war memories surrounding World War II.
Furthermore, historical revisionism is, together with the “comfort women” topic, an obstacle in the full normalization of the relations with South Korea, a key partner and fellow American ally. The points of friction between the two states concern critical matters. As Abe’s op-ed in The New York Times amply demonstrates, in the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Seoul and Tokyo approach the threat differently. Japan’s firmer and more militaristic attitude towards the Kim regime may, therefore, widen rather than narrow the rift with South Korea, which struggles to avoid a devastating conflict for its people.
The risks of an exceedingly assertive foreign and security posture are even higher on the economic front. As long as markets perceive Kim’s provocations as some kind of “business as usual” or the “new normal,” the Abe government does not need to worry. On the contrary, if markets begin seeing an escalation of the crisis likely to endanger stability in Asia and to constitute a prelude to war, then this will adversely impact the world’s third largest economy. Even before the launch by North Korea of the two ballistic missiles over Hokkaido, institutional investors had shown signs of nervousness, reducing their exposure in Japanese equity. This tense situation adds a layer of concern to the already existing structural problems of the Japanese economy. Deflation remains a major problem with price and wage growth at low levels notwithstanding the Bank of Japan’s massive stimulus program in 2013 and some encouraging signs of robust recovery.
Finally, according to the OECD, government revenue has not kept pace with spending and the debt continues to rise as a share of GDP. Since defense spending is dependent upon the state of the economy, it is necessary that Abe’s “three arrows” for defense and security match the “three arrows” of his economic agenda, which is far from easy. For example, Japan’s efforts to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement after U.S. withdrawal in order to boost access to foreign markets and offer an alternative to the China-centric Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have fallen short of a concrete deal with the other remaining parties.
Last but not least, the domestic politics come strongly into play and may test the Abe Doctrine as soon as this month. Trying to capitalize on the surge of popularity after the North Korean missile launches, Abe dissolved the lower house of the National Diet, the Japanese Parliament, and called a snap election for October 22. This type of political exercise is always fraught with dangers and uncertainties, and some are already showing up. In what media outlets have described as “a dramatic move sure to change the landscape of the nation’s politics,” the main opposition party, the center-left Democratic Party, decided to merge with the newly created Kibo no To (“Party of Hope”) of Tokyo’s Governor Yuriko Koike, a conservative force.
As a result, the upcoming elections will witness the confrontation between two parties having similar views on security and defense, which renders Abe more vulnerable than he would have been had he faced a more liberal candidate. This raises the question of the impact of these political events on the evolution of the Abe Doctrine. A further hardening of the government’s stance on defense and security matters would be surprising as the reforms already made, in particular the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution, are still very controversial and the announcement in May of the government’s plan to pursue the first-ever amendment to the Constitution precisely in order to rewrite this provision has been met with opposition in the public opinion.
Therefore, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe faces a serious dilemma as to the best course of action to adopt for Japan’s security. As already mentioned above, the appropriate response appears to be a carefully calibrated strategy that deters further provocations coming from Pyongyang, while avoiding a serious aggravation of the current crisis that would affect economic growth and, as a consequence, hamper the government’s efforts to rebuild Japan’s military strength and reassert its regional influence.
Ioana Petculescu, Guest Expert at DAVA | Strategic Analysis, is a lawyer specialized in international arbitration and litigation, practicing in Paris. She acts as a consultant for the aerospace and defense industry and as an expert for the European Union. She currently studies strategy and nuclear deterrence at Harvard Extension School.