Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have won many hearts when he became the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress this week. With his speech interrupted by frequent applause and standing ovations, Abe trumpeted transformation of the bilateral security alliance into a global partnership and pledged that Japan is “resolved to take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world.” Now he needs to win the understanding of the Japanese people, who appear to remain wary of his administration’s bid to significantly expand the nation’s international security roles.
Abe’s ruling coalition parties effectively wrapped up their talks on a package of security legislation prepared by his administration in time for his visit to the U.S. Ahead of his talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday, the foreign and defense ministers of the two governments formally agreed on the first revision to the guidelines of Japan-U.S. defense cooperation in 18 years — which is closely linked to the planned security legislation. In his speech to Congress on Wednesday, Abe pledged twice that his administration would enact the legislation by this summer.
“In Japan we are working hard to enhance the legislative foundations for our security. Once in place, Japan will be much more able to provide a seamless response for all levels of crisis. These enhanced legislative foundations should make the cooperation between the U.S. military and Japan’s Self Defense Forces even stronger, and the alliance still more solid, providing credible deterrence for the peace in the region. This reform is the first of its kind and a sweeping one in our post-war history. We will achieve this by this coming summer,” he said.
It is unusual — and presumptuous — of the prime minister to effectively promise to the U.S. Congress enactment of a law even before it is tabled in the Diet. In a Kyodo News poll in March, opposition to the security legislation outnumbered support, indicating that a majority of citizens are not yet convinced of Abe’s bid for Japan to take on greater security roles. Shouldn’t he have been addressing this domestic audience first?
The prime minister also appeared to be pandering to the U.S. when, during his talks with Obama in Washington, he said that his administration remains unwavering in its position that construction of a new replacement facility off the Henoko district of Nago is the “only solution” for closing the U.S. Marine’s Air Station Futenma — despite the overwhelming local opposition to the project. Abe did convey to Obama a message from Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga stating that the prefecture is opposed to Futenma’s relocation to Henoko, but then he went on to reiterate his government’s rigid position on the issue. It sounded like he was saying that his administration prioritizes its commitment to the U.S. over the popular will in Okinawa, which continues to bear much of the burden of hosting the U.S. military presence under the bilateral alliance.
The pending security legislation will implement Abe’s Cabinet decision last year to lift the ban on Japan engaging in the act of collective self-defense — which previous governments said was not allowed under the nation’s war-renouncing Constitution — and significantly expand the scope of the SDF’s overseas missions. The updated guidelines on Japan-U.S. defense cooperation remove the geographical boundaries on SDF’s support of the U.S. military and potentially pave the way for joint operations around the globe.
The Abe administration believes that as the security environment in Asia-Pacific changes rapidly with the rise of China, Japan needs to play a greater security role to maintain the security alliance with the U.S. as an effective deterrence. The U.S. welcomes Japan’s move since it wants its allies to make greater security contributions at a time when tight budgetary constraints are forcing it to cut back defense spending.
China was indeed a focal point of Abe’s roughly 45 minute address to Congress — even though he mentioned the country by name just once. In urging the U.S. and Japan to take the lead in concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, Abe said the TPP is about spreading “our shared values around the world and have them take root: the rule of law, democracy and freedom.” In underscoring his “three principles” in regard to Asian waters, Abe said, “First, states shall make their claims based on international law. Second, they shall not use force or coercion to drive their claims. And third, to settle disputes, any disputes, they shall do so by peaceful means. We must make the vast seas stretching from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans seas of peace and freedom, where all follow the rule of law. For that very reason we must fortify the U.S.-Japan alliance.” Without naming the country itself, Abe was clearly trying to put China on the other side of the Japan-U.S. alliance of “shared values.”
Abe also said Japan has “deepened its strategic relations with Australia and India” and is “enhancing our cooperation across many field” with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and South Korea, and noted that “our region will get stable remarkably more” by “adding those partners to the central pillar that is the U.S.-Japan alliance.” The omission of China from his statement speaks volumes about what he hopes to achieve by beefing up the security ties with the U.S.
In a TV program aired on Thursday, Abe singled out China’s military buildup and its maritime assertiveness in the East China Sea and the South China Sea — along with the threat posed by North Korea — as reasons that prompted Japan to update the guidelines for defense cooperation with the U.S. The prime minister needs to stop and think whether strengthening the Japan-U.S. security alliance with the aim of countering a specific country will, in fact, contribute to making the region “remarkably more stable.”