Since sweeping back into power in December 2012’s lower house victory, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pursued a series of reforms aimed at keeping his increasingly marginalized country a tier-one power. Among these efforts, Abe’s plan for reviving the long-stagnant Japanese economy, dubbed “Abenomics,” has received the most international attention. However, attention has recently refocused on a different kind of revival: the Abe government’s plans for defense reform. These reform plans have come to the fore most recently through a move toward exercising the right to collective self-defense, but have been in development throughout Abe’s second tenure as Prime Minister. They include the creation of a National Security Council (NSC) designed to help Japan better coordinate its defense and diplomacy, revised National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) outlining military strategy and force structure planning over the next ten years, a first ever National Security Strategy (NSS) explaining Japan’s comprehensive foreign policy, and the easing of a ban on arms exports in support of Japanese defense technology. Applied, Abe’s defense reform plan will result in a 5 percent increase in defense spending for the next five years, leveraging Japan’s technological lead and focusing on Chinese vulnerabilities. Japan aims develop a marine corps of its own, integrate unmanned drones into defense plans, strengthen its capacity for real-time military intelligence, respond effectively and immediately to Chinese intrusions into disputed air and maritime spaces, and maintain Japanese national security by aiding in the defense of vital strategic partners This new, more assertive national security policy has been described by Abe as “active pacifism,” which involves an implicit promise that Japan will maintain its constitutional revocation of offensive war amidst defense reform. Media representation and public perception, however, have tended to paint these reforms as anything but pacifist. This concern builds on Abe’s nationalist reputation, a concept downplayed during Abe’s initial push for Abenomics in 2013 but reengaged by his controversial visit to Yasakuni Shrine this past December. Honoring the nation’s 2.5 million wartime dead, including those convicted of committing atrocities, Yasakuni stands as a reminder to Japan’s neighbors of the suffering inflicted by imperial Japan. Concern about the potential nationalist implications of Japanese defense reform was further stoked by rumors that the Abe government was considering revising the 1993 Kono Statement, in which Japan admitted to and apologized for forcing women to work at military brothels during the war. Given the importance of perception in international politics, awareness of the historical associations of Japanese militarization is important. However, the nationalism associated with Abe has also clouded understanding of the foundations and implications of Japanese defense reform. A more complete analysis requires considering these reforms in the context of Japan’s challenging security environment, its suite of defense reform options, and its broader policies and stances. Japanese defense reform, at its core, rationally serves to adapt Japan to an increasingly dynamic security environment. During the Cold War, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces put top priority on ground forces geared toward protecting the mainland from an invasion by the Soviet Union. As this threat has long expired, Japan’s updated force posture will allow it to refocus its efforts toward more pressing matters, including the air and sea-reliant defense of its remote islands. Japanese defense reform also provides a response to Japan’s biggest strategic challenge: China’s increasingly aggressive force posture and military expenditures. Building on over a decade of double digit defense spending increases, China has set its 2014 expenditure for national defense at $132 billion, an increase of 12.2 percent on the past year. Japan, reversing defense spending that declined from 2002 to 2012, will increase its defense budget by 2.9 percent to $49 billion in 2014—less than two-fifths the size of China’s defense budget. Further underlying Japan’s changing posture and increased spending is a changing alliance with the United States. Per plans to update US-Japan defense guidelines, Japanese defense reforms reflect efforts to increase cooperation between the two allies, pressure from the United States for Japan to take a stronger role in its defense, and—most controversially—Japanese insecurity about the future of American power. The nature of its cornerstone strategic partnership is changing, and Japanese strategy must adjust to this reality. Japan experts, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s James Schoff and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Michael Green, have suggested that Japan’s defense reforms are actively and appropriately responding to the nation’s present security environment. Abe’s plans, however, can be judged cogent not only for what they do but also for what they do not do. While Abe predicted in his New Year’s comments that the country’s war-renouncing constitution “will have been revised” by 2020, the Abe government has made no plans to undertake this endeavor. Furthermore, the military’s previously rumored “first strike” capability has also been left out of recently released plans. Perhaps most importantly, plans to lift Japan’s ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense have shown active moderation, with the LDP proposing a stricter definition of threat to national security in compromise with its coalition partner, New Komeito. Regardless of where Abe personally stands on Japanese defense, the policies undertaken have thus far not overstepped any political boundaries. Finally, this understanding of Japanese defense reform should be considered in the context of the Abe government’s broader policies and political stances. While Abe’s visit to Yasakuni Shrine raised concerns that he would pursue defense reform at the expense of the economy, Japan’s prime minister actively responded to this concern in a 7 January statement in which he declared that “the Abe administration’s top priority will continue to be economic revitalization in the coming year.” The Abe government has not only worked to place focus on the economy amidst its move toward defense reform but has also worked to separate the government’s policy from the nationalist history of Abe himself and other Japanese leaders. This was perhaps best demonstrated through Abe’s confirmation that his administration would not revise the Kono Statement and through efforts to rekindle relations with South Korea in a trilateral meeting involving Abe, U.S. President Barack Obama, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Abe’s defense reform plan, then, addresses Japan’s challenging security environment through a generally pragmatic national security agenda. At the same time, it avoids more extreme policy options by designating defense reform as part of a broader package of policies meant to support Japan’s national interests. In doing so, it builds on the direction set by Abe’s predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, as well as overall efforts going back decades to strengthen the role of the prime minister’s office in national security. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has put it, Japan is now set to play “a more modern, engaged role.” Ultimately, realizing an effective and realistic national security policy will give credit to Abe’s claim that “Japan is back” while providing security and stability for both Japan and the region.
Taylor M. Wettach