Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is under fire on a number of fronts. Photo: Reuters/Kimimasa Mayama
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is under fire on a number of fronts. Photo: Reuters/Kimimasa Mayama

The political future of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – enigmatic as ever – is uncertain. Despite his various difficulties, he appears to be master of his fate, yet external forces continue to drive his agenda, shaping both his and the Liberal Democratic Party’s military priorities.

“Japan’s military build-up is not necessarily the simple result of having a prime minister with nationalistic views,” said Professor William Brooks of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “The Obama administration’s rebalancing to Asia put pressure on Japan to upgrade its equipment, strategy and enhance cooperation with the US forces. Recently, alliance coordination has started to include [South Korea], positing a trilateral response to a Korean Peninsula contingency.”

Brooks describes the Self Defense Force’s capabilities, including internal coordination, as an “evolutionary and a logical reaction to external forces that threaten Japan, including its very existence (North Korea). The proactiveness of PM Abe has helped focus policy to counter China.”

Yet polls consistently show public opposition to a revision to Article 9 of the constitution to grant Japanese forces freer reign – a move championed by nationalist Abe.

“Kyodo’s May poll, for example, had 57.6% opposed to revising the constitution while Abe is prime minister, [but] open disapproval has subsided,” said Brooks. “Moreover, Abe’s recent moves to ease strains with China add a new dimension to his China strategy. In addition, a hotline between Japanese and Chinese military commands is now being set up.”

Japan’s defense budget – rising under Abe, but incrementally – is still kept under the traditional 1% of GDP cap, although the LDP is now openly discussing the adoption of a 2% GDP cap.

Abe’s replacement – assuming, that is, that he will be out of office later this year – will likely continue to pursue enhancements to SDF’s capabilities to defend the homeland, as well as to cooperate with the US region-wide.

“Abe’s two likely challengers are former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, who leads a large faction in the LDP. Ishiba, a defense hawk, would not likely change Abe’s policy agenda toward constitutional reform,” said Brooks. “Kishida, who comes from the dovish wing of the LDP and represents Hiroshima, is not as committed to changing Article 9 to allow explicit mention of the SDF as the nation’s army as is … Abe.”

Abe, beset by political scandals, has suffered support ratings in the 30s in recent opinion surveys.

“If his popularity drops below 30% and stays there, he is unlikely to survive the upcoming election. Ishiba already is more popular than Abe as the public’s choice for the next prime minister,” said Brooks, citing the sliding 2018 economy, scandals and the failure of his friendship with US President Donald Trump to pay off on trade.

Garren Mulloy, Associate Professor of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama, agrees that Abe is in trouble, but says the opposition is weak.

“Much depends on challengers emerging and deciding to push, but the other option is for Abe to push (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro) Aso as a scapegoat and hope for the best. Right now he is moderately safe due to the poverty of the opposition,” said Mulloy via email.

Mulloy is not even sure the SDF strongly supports constitutional revision.

“The 2015-16 legal revisions did not really help the SDF overly, but did create problems of perception and a drop in recruitment,” said Mulloy. “Little is certain about eventual results once the process starts – even if it passes a Diet vote and referendum. Without Abe, the engine for reform would be degraded, but the prime obstacle would also be removed. There are plenty of ex-DPJ politicians … who have embraced elements of reform, and of Article 9, but not under the tutelage of Abe.”

Mulloy also agrees that Kishida and Ishiba are obvious candidates to replace Abe.

“Even before the scandals, they positioned themselves for post-Abe leadership. Kishida is a good diplomat, amiable and looks good on TV. Ishiba is the policy wonk, the monster brain the LDP old guard do not really trust as he is too smart,” said Mulloy. “Both are pro-revision.”

Foreign Minister Kono Taro is also on Mulloy’s list: “He is popular, but far too liberal for most LDP Diet members. Not pro-revision, but would accept liberal revisions, even of Article 9.

“Minister of Internal Affairs Noda Seiko, a more traditional conservative, has women’s rights, child rearing and population issues, and fighting against prejudice on her agenda,” added Mulloy. “Her nationalism appeals to Abe – very pro-revision for Article 9 and the issues mentioned above.”

Mulloy is convinced that Japan’s military strategy and Article 9 are different issues.

“The Ground Self Defense Force needs to be cut, but this is tricky for force balancing which is an old concern … the Maritime Self Defense Force is too large for its personnel. It needs to either expand recruitment or decrease its requirements, by automation or fleet reductions,” said Mulloy.

The MSDF’s limited power-projection capabilities, limited logistical capacities – “the real bottleneck” – and lack of fixed-wing shipborne aviation concern Mulloy. “The MSDF constitutes a very small and shallow force barely able to defend a flotilla, let alone a fleet. The Air Self Defense Force has nowhere near the resources to protect a fleet, and limited airlift. The amphibious force suffers from the same MSDF sealift and logistics bottleneck,” he said.

It is not much use having 2,100 marines if they lack transport and support, added Mulloy.

Thus far, Japanese voters remain largely uninterested in defense.

“Few Japanese know what the defense budget is, what it is spent on and what the actual forces are capable of. Despite increases, the Japanese budget remains less than 1% of GNP, or maybe 1.2% if judged by NATO standards – less than the French and British levels and possibly less than the Germans too,” said Mulloy. “Most countries do not have China and North Korea as neighbors nor such a massive maritime EEZ and dependence upon ship-imported energy.

“It is like expecting complaints about the large Japanese Coast Guard budget: while they are busy with Senkaku and potentially dealing with [North Korean] spy boats, there is little chance of criticism,” he added.

Bates Gill, a Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, doubts that Abe is about to simply fade away.

“Despite his lack of popularity, he still has the skills and following to pull off a re-election. Once re-elected, he may prefer to focus on the upcoming Olympics and then – assuming their success – go for constitutional revision. That revision might be something simple which would legitimate the SDF. Any wholesale revision of the constitution is unlikely and it would stay focused on Article 9,” said Gill.

America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea deserve closer scrutiny. But with the North Korea-US summit talks eating Trump’s time, an embattled Abe can only sit and wait until the phone rings.