Written by Alex Calvo.
The announcement of an early election in Japan has been accompanied by intense debate on the state of the country’s economy and the success or otherwise of the package of policies known as “Abenomics”. While the economy is likely to remain the focus of the election campaign, we should be aware that much is also at stake in the foreign policy arena. The recent agreement with China, rather a signal that contacts are being upgraded but containing little substance, may have seemed to many confirmation that neither Beijing nor Tokyo wished to escalate their disputes, but the fact remains that the complex web of tensions in East Asia and more generally the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region is unlikely to abate any time soon. In this scenario, we need to consider whether a victory for Abe is the best outcome in terms of regional stability, or whether the cause of peace would be best served by his failure to achieve a working majority of lawmakers.
The Japanese prime minister’s decision to go to the country seems to have been motivated by a desire to renew his mandate in order to gain breathing space for his economic policies and reform agenda to start bearing fruit, free of distractions from tax issues, and to make it clear to the electorate and the different political actors that there is no alternative to his leadership and policies. Whatever one’s views on Abe, it is difficult not to agree with the second proposition. In the Japanese political landscape, no other figure or party is currently in a position to credibly posit himself as an alternative. Concerning his policies, even those who may disagree with some aspects would be hard put to articulate a comprehensive alternative vision. Concerning the first assertion, any set of policies is likely to need a few years before it becomes clear whether it is working. Abenomics is no exception.
The decision to call the election and the subsequent campaign seem focused on economic policy. However, the first responsibility of any state concerns national and human security, its own and that of partners and allies. In this regard, the outcome of the election does not only concern Japan, but other countries in the region. Tokyo’s gradual but sustained “normalization” as a military power has mainly been prompted by objective factors such as changes in the regional environment, the ascent of China, and the evolution of the US-Japan relation. The fact that it has kept moving at times of political instability, under short-lived prime ministers and frequent government changes, should serve a caution note against any exaggerated view of the significance of office holders. However, it would be equally mistaken to go to the other extreme and believe that it does not matter who and under which circumstances is prime minister. It clearly does.
Just to mention an important aspect of Abe’s foreign policy record, we should remember that he invested considerable political capital in concluding a fisheries agreement with Taiwan, after many years of unsuccessful negotiations. This is important not only because it reduces the likelihood of frictions with Taiwan in this perennially sensitive sphere, but because it is a practical demonstration that countries can and should set aside territorial disputes while working on confidence-building measures and the joint stewardship and management of natural resources. Some political leaders may often talk about peace, and there is no doubt this is often a sincere wish. Abe, however, has not simply talked about peace, but taken a concrete step, together with Taiwanese President Ma, towards peace and stability. Action, not words, is what we have seen from Abe and Ma. Their agreement, in line with the latter’s East-China Sea Peace Initiative, could well serve as a template for other bilateral and ideally multilateral agreements: freeze territorial disputes, keep claims but agree not to push them, and in the meantime ensure incidents are avoided or at least not escalated and engage in the joint management of economic resources in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Peace, however, is not only secured by reaching pragmatic agreements with nearby countries. Sometimes, history teaches us, we must overcome the temptation to be eaten last by the crocodile and instead support those who are in danger of becoming its early victims. Lawyers call it collective security, US President Roosevelt used the analogy of lending a hose to a neighbour whose house was on fire. Although collective security is at the heart of the UN System, the traditional official interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is that the country could not exercise it. Already in his first term in office Shinzo Abe tried to change this, establishing an “Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security”. Once back in office, the panel resumed its meetings, and this year it issued a new report, suggesting that subject to a number of caveats the right to collective self-defence be recognized, making it possible that “When a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan comes under an armed attack and if such a situation has the potential to significantly affect the security of Japan, Japan should be able to participate in operations to repel such an attack by using force to the minimum extent necessary, having obtained an explicit request or consent from the country under attack, and thus to make a contribution to the maintenance and restoration of international peace and security even if Japan itself is not directly attacked”. Both Vietnam and the Philippines, already the recipients of Japanese capacity-building assistance, in the form among others of coastguard boats, other equipment, and training, have welcomed the move. Taiwan is following it closely. Without Abe’s stress on this issue, it is unlikely such change would be taking place now.
Of course, not everybody sees things this way. There are voices who fear that this commitment to regional security, and more generally renewed vigour in Japanese foreign and defence policies, may increase rather than diminish the likelihood of conflict. History teaches us, however, that it is weakness, not strength, that tempts would be aggressors. The Falklands, which have become part of Shinzo Abe’s foreign and defence policy narrative, are a clear case in point. Abe is trying to avoid some mistakes that the UK made, such as naval cuts and the announced withdrawal of HMS Endurance, which helped convince the Junta that this could be another “Goa” (the original codeword for the invasion, later changed to “Rosario”). Apart from learning from the Falklands, his public references to that war are meant to send a clear signal that aggression will be resisted. If that message gets across, the likelihood of conflict will diminish.
Thus, leaving aside economic policy for a moment, from a peace and security perspective it seems clear that Abe’s victory at the polls is the best scenario. It would allow Japan to complete the move towards collective self-defence under a dynamic prime minister clearly committed to a strong yet pragmatic defence posture. He may not be the most popular figure in some capitals, but his replacement by a weaker figure or a return to instability would entail a higher risk of miscalculation.
Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image Credit: CC by Number 10/Flikr