MS Risk Blog

Shinzo Abe is set to Depart, what does that Hold for Japan’s Future Security?

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Japan had undergone years of topsy-turvy, constant changes in the occupation of the Prime Minister’s office, until Shinzo Abe made a fist of it over the last 8 years – leading the country for the longest consecutive streak on record, and in the process solidifying the Liberal Democratic Party’s hold on power in both chambers of the Legislature. This state of affairs added gravitas to Japan’s image on the International stage.

Suddenly, after weeks of rumours and innuendo, 65 years old Prime Minister Abe announced on August 28th that he will indeed step-down from office owing to a recurring bout of an intestinal disorder. Prime Minister Abe had famously sought to revitalise the flagging Japanese Economy with a set monetary and fiscal policies to revive growth.

If a week is a long time in Politics, eight years could seem an eternity in geo-politics. Japan has underpinned its security guarantees in the bilateral defence pact it has with the United States of America. That has served as a bulwark for over 60 years. But China’s emergence as major geo-political and global player threatens the status quo. China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea has been a wake-up call. Japan and China are embroiled in a dispute over ownership of the uninhabited Pinnacle Islands in the East China Sea. Both countries have a long historical legacy of bitterness towards each other – to put it mildly.

Japan has had a pacifist Constitution since May 1947. Shinzo Abe sensing the Changing geo-political currents, embarked on triumvirate approach to foreign policy and security – once he took office. He signalled his intention to revising article 9 of the Constitution which forbids the Country from foreign military engagement as a means to settle International disputes. The downside to that approach is that the constitution sets meandering, and laborious procedures for any change. Public appetite to change has proved to be lukewarm as the case may be.

The second and third angles to the triumvirate have been more tactical, and less strategic, but easier to manage in the short term. He has adopted a containment approach to dealing with China’s growing assertiveness. Even as China has probed into the disputed Islands, Prime Minister Abe has avoided any escalation in words and deeds. This tactic has similarly been at play in how the Abe Government has handled Russia in the Kuril Islands’ dispute. However, being mindful and containing cannot be a strategy that can lead to a guarantee of achieving long term solutions.

The third angle of approach has seen Japan’s increasing its conduct of security partnerships. Japan Self Defence Force in 2019, carried out drills with Armies or Maritime forces of India, Philippines, and the United Kingdom; including being part of a four Nation joint military practise involving Australia, South Korea, and America.

President Donald Trump’s America first abdication of global leadership has not been in Japan’s best interest. President Trump has questioned the wisdom of having American Military forces stationed in the Pacific even as Prime Minister Abe has cozied-up to him.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has fired rockets to land off the coast of Japan. The threat he poses while abated in recent months, will not go away. He has called for the removal of American forces in Japan and South Korea as a pre-condition for any Nuclear disarmament on North Korea’s part.

Observers are divided on whether ailing Prime Minister Abe leaves the stage with the glass half-full or half-empty. In the ever-evolving world of International diplomacy and security, an affirmative answer is hard to come by. One thing is for sure though: As issues currently stand… events surrounding Japan’s security arrangements from a geo-political standpoint looks somewhat messy.

It might be too early at this stage to speculate on who Shinzo Abe’s successor will be. The fact of the matter is: The next Prime Minister will have their work cut out. They will have to deal with a public health crisis in Covid-19. An Economy that has contracted due to the pandemic and is in urgent need of a reboot. There is also the rescheduled Olympic games, and general elections – both to come in 2021.

The three aforementioned items are no doubt urgent. But Japan will need a coherent security and foreign policy strategy in the long term to deal with China’s military expansionism, and North Korea’s brazen dictator Kim Jung Un.  That may be in tandem with the United Sates, or any other bilateral or multilateral security arrangement.  We cannot rule out Abe’s successor managing to change the intractable Article 9 of the constitution to grant Japan self-defence force some more leeway. The equation is simple: Japan needs a reliable security deterrent. Peace in Asia pacific calls for that.