Collective Self-Defense and Japan: Readings and Analysis

The big change to Japan’s post-war constitutional fabric announced on July 1 has unsurprisingly brought all sorts of analysts out of the woodwork determined to have their say.

For example, there is myself.

At the risk of deprecating others by putting them in the same category as myself, here are some other notable contributions:

Jeremy Yellen from Harvard

Adam Liff from Princeton-Harvard

Tobias Harris, formerly of MIT, now with Teneo Intelligence (paywalled)

Shelia Smith from CFR

James Schoff, former DoD official and now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

If there is a common theme between these articles it would be that there is still a lot of political water to go under the bridge before anything like the anticipated gains relating to deterrence can be realized, if that is your concern. It would also be remiss of me to not mention that the process undertaken to rework the government’s interpretation of the constitution was less than popular, and of questionable political legitimacy. Bryce Wakefield and Craig Martin provide the most forceful articulations of such a view.

I will also have an article up on East Asia Forum soon which will work through the implications of the ‘legalization‘ of Japan’s unique version of collective self-defense assuming that the Abe administration achieves their stated objectives to the fullest extent.

 

 

Abe’s CSD Report and the Political Agenda

The Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security (安全保障の法的基盤の再構築に関する懇談会; hereafter the “Panel” or kondankai) has delivered its report to Prime Minister Abe and the NSC. The main focus of the report relates to whether the Japanese government can and should allow itself to exercise the right to collective self-defense currently considered by the Japanese government to be a prohibited form of the use of force to settle an international dispute. I have outlined the general approach that might be used to reconfigure the current constitutional interpretation here.

The key thing to remember is that the kondankai’s recommendations do not carry any legal weight as they are essentially a private advisory body to the Prime Minister. Abe himself has said the report will point to the general policy direction that he intends to take, although the final decision on CSD and constitutional reinterpretation will be taken later. The report will serve, however, as a maximal point of reference for where Japan’s security policy and SDF activities might go in the near future.
For now, it seems Abe will use the report to assert that Japan cannot defend itself adequately or contribute to stabilizing the regional security environment without making certain changes to its security policy and current interpretations of Article 9. He will argue that such changes will be essential for Japan to continue to enjoy a stable regional environment, as this will help strengthen the US-Japan alliance and allow Japan to play a greater role in regional deterrence.
While indicating his support for many of the positions taken by the kondankai, the language used by Abe in the press conference after the report was released suggested that the changes proposed by the Panel were not a foregone conclusion. This was likely out of consideration for coalition partner Komeito. Abe also attempted to head off wide-ranging concerns among the public and many political elites about how far the changes would go by ruling out the proposal of the kondankai to allow unlimited Japanese participation in United Nations Security Council-sanctioned collective security actions undertaken by multinational forces seeking to restore international order. Abe also suggested that he would only pursue legislation to enable a partial or limited exercise of Japan’s collective self-defense rights. This is opposed to a reinterpretation that would allow the full embrace of the right to exercise collective self-defense, which could allow Japan to use collective self-defense rationales to justify military interventions such as those that took place in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Even as he tries to present his reinterpretation plans in a moderate light, there are a few different “veto” points Abe will have to negotiate, however – both political and institutional – before this becomes full government policy.
Politically, Abe is to the right even for this rather right-leaning LDP. There are factions and groups within the LDP, including many in the House of Councillors, that are skeptical of the change, either on procedural and legal grounds (ie can political leaders really just “reinterpret” the constitution without Cabinet Legislative Bureau and/or Supreme Court direction?), or in terms of worries about public opinion and electoral backlash. Many less hawkish LDP members are closer to the Japanese public’s attitude in that they support the expansion of activities that the SDF can undertake, particularly in regards to regional security, but are reluctant for the SDF to be proactively engaged in combat overseas, particularly within another country’s sovereign territory.
This is very similar to attitudes within the New Komeito. In addition to a strong reluctance to see the SDF engage in overseas combat, the added complication with Komeito is that the party has symbolically been opposed to CSD since the party’s inception some 50 years ago. The Komeito’s core political support group, Souka Gakkai, is in particular against the change to this core identity for the party, and the organization has already made an official statement asserting that constitutional revision is required rather than reinterpretation. New Komeito MPs themselves are more pragmatic in the sense that they generally support the US-Japan alliance, and are not necessarily against all of the changes that Abe and the kondankai will propose. But the party really does not want to call whatever these changes will be “collective self-defense,” especially if it means they will run afoul of Souka Gakkai. Abe and his supporters, on the other hand, are highly invested in the historical and strategic symbolism around “collective self-defense,” so a lot of the tension between Abe and the Komeito will be focused as much on the language used in any collective cabinet decision, rather than simply being about what the SDF should be able to do.
Within this political context, two institutional checkpoints are important.
First, Abe is trying to rally Cabinet to sign-off as a whole on a new interpretation. This is harder than it might seem as every member of the cabinet needs to sign-off. Former Komeito leader Ota Akihiro is currently Minister of Transport in the Abe Cabinet. If Ota refuses to put his name to any Cabinet decision and Diet bills, Abe cannot proceed and would be basically forced to expel Ota (this would be similar to what happened between the DPJ and Fukushima Mizuho from the SDP over the Futenma relocation plan). That would obviously have significant implications for the coalition relationship which Abe currently relies upon for a majority in the House of Councillors. While they would be unlikely to oppose Abe directly, senior and influential cabinet ministers such as former LDP leader and Minister of Justice Tanigaki Sadakazu, and Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio, head of the less hawkish Kouchikai (宏池会) faction, are skeptical of Abe’s collective security agenda and may wield some influence inside cabinet.
Also, as much as he might want to, Abe can’t just turf out Komeito in favour of pro-CSD opposition parties with sufficient parliamentary strength to give the LDP a House of Councillors majority, even though this is a mathematical possibility. This is because Komeito essentially gives over their votes to the LDP at election time in Japan’s sometimes very close winner-take-all single member electoral districts, especially in urban areas. This is usually in exchange for the LDP not running LDP members in other seats, thereby allowing the Komeito to increase their seat total over and above what they would otherwise get through proportional representation. This relationship is essential for the maintenance of LDP rule, and LDP elders will be very reluctant to allow Abe to single out other parties in the opposition to replace the Komeito in order to  simply have the words “collective self-defense” emblazoned on the new policy. As it is, with the self-destruction of both Watanabe Yoshimi (Your Party) and Hashimoto Toru (Japan Restoration Party), the LDP now has no long-term prospects for collaboration, and in any respect, neither party can deliver votes in the disciplined and consistent way that the Komeito can. Komeito, itself, of course, will be very reluctant to break up the coalition for the same opportunistic reasons, and Komeito’s leader Yamaguchi Natsuo has already said that he has no intention of doing so. Abe and the LDP, however, would like a collective cabinet decision in the books before the end of the year as the US-Japan Revised Guidelines will be revised again.
Second, even if Abe manages to convince Komeito and Minister of Transport Ota to to sign off on collective self-defense and other proposals put forward by the kondankai, Abe still has to go to through parliament and attempt to make changes to anywhere between 10 and 18 laws, including the SDF Law, the UNPKO Law, the “Areas Around Japan” Law, and the Armed Attack Response Law. The two parties will undoubtedly have to make it through some pretty tough questions from the opposition. The opposition will also likely call in experts beyond those who sat on the Panel, and perhaps even former Cabinet Legislative Bureau officials, to contest the kondankai’s arguments. This might hold the legislative process up, especially if already skeptical public sentiment hardens against the proposed changes (with the electoral consequences that might have down the track). It isn’t impossible that some inside the LDP and Komeito get cold feet at some point, especially if the economy starts to stall, or the TPP or some other policy issue rises to trouble the current administration.
 In terms of the whole process of legislation surrounding the Panel’s recommendations, it could take up to 1 to 2 years more. The 1999 “Areas Around Japan” legislation took about two years to negotiate into legislation after the revised guidelines. Ishiba recently told a Washington audience something very similar could happen in this case. From Abe’s point of view, the longer he leaves things up for debate, though, the more politically tense things will become. This is because any controversy and delay will push the changes closer to elections, potentially leading to added caution within the ruling parties. This year is the sweet spot in the electoral cycle in terms of Abe probably not being penalized too much for unpopular policies. Currently, Abe is still in a politically strong position, and has arguably recovered a bit of lost ground since the Designated Secrets Bill and Yasukuni visit at the end of last year. His popularity does not seem to have been greatly harmed by the consumption tax increase last month, and he may be willing to spend political capital on this issue.
Komeito, on the other hand, wants to delay things as long as possible, as that will enhance its ability to extract concessions and compromises from the Abe government, and, they hope, help them avoid compromising on the more controversial elements related to the exercise of collective self-defense. In 2015, we have unified local elections in the spring, and then the LDP presidential elections later in the year. Then in 2016 we have both Lower and Upper House elections, unless current rumours prove true.
The controversy will be kept under wraps for a while longer yet, however. A meeting between the top executives of both the LDP and Komeito will take place on the 20th to discuss how to proceed on “gray zone” issues, relaxing some restrictions on SDF participation and the use of weapons to protect other countries’ militaries and citizens in UNPKOs and other joint operations, and perhaps legislation allowing the SDF to undertake operations to remove Japanese citizens from dangerous areas, as raised by the kondankai.  Discussions behind the scenes on the most controversial live issue of collective self-defense will also be started. What the Panel has to say about the exercise of collective self-defense, and its relation to the debate over its implementation, will be covered here as it becomes more salient over the next few months. For now, below is a brief discussion of the two broader issues of gray zone contingencies and the use of weapons in non-international conflict situations that the LDP and Komeito have already agreed to prioritize in order to essentially keep the political peace for the time being.
Gray Zone Contingencies 
Up until now the SDF has been highly restricted legally in regards to its ability to apply pressure through the threat of, or the use of weapons, even within Japan’s own territory, unless there is a direct and imminent “armed attack” on Japan underway and there is a government mobilization order (such as Defense Mobilization, Maritime Security Operations, or Public Security Operations Orders). There are no provisions that allow the SDF to immediately react to situations which may sit within the “gray zone” between peace and an “armed attack,” currently defined as an “organised and planned use of force against Japan.” The panel in particular has identified illegal and non-innocent submarine incursions into Japan’s territory, attacks on nuclear power facilities, as well as surreptitious paramilitary or guerrilla “invasion” of the remote islands (ie the Senkakus) for the purposes of exerting control over the islands, as three particular issues of concern. The argument is that such aggressive infringements, which could have implications for the security of Japan in addition to being infringements of domestic law, or could represent preludes to an organised armed attack, could best be handled through SDF deployment, rather than relying on the Japan Coast Guard and police through “law enforcement powers,” as has been the legal requirement up until now.
The political debate over better addressing such gray zone contingencies is generally uncontroversial. It was first mentioned in the 2010 NDPG released by the DPJ government as requiring addressing, and both the LDP and the Komeito appear to support adjustments to legislation.

The use of weapons in situations not considered the use of force

The kondankai identified two general situations, not considered to be the use of force in international law, within which the government has said it will consider relaxing restrictions on the use of weapons.

  1. 駆けつけ警護 (kaketsuke-keigo), removing obstructions to missions, protecting civilians

Currently the SDF is generally only allowed to use weapons in UNPKO missions to protect themselves and foreign civilian and military personnel under their direct supervision. 駆けつけ警護 (kaketsuke-keigo) missions, however, are emergency aid and protection operations that may involve the use of weapons to come to the aid of geographically distant unit under attack or personnel participating in the same UNPKO. Such personnel could include members of foreign militaries, members of NGOs or IOs or other cooperating civilians. The current constitutional interpretation regards such operations to possibly constitute a form of prohibited use of force overseas if the concerned personnel are being held or attacked by a quasi-national or state organization.

The Panel, however, argues that no other nation interprets the “use of weapons” within the context of the international standards set down for UNPKOs (which are generally post-conflict in nature) as being equivalent to the use of force, irrespective of whether the hostile party is a disorganized criminal group, a guerilla force, or a quasi-state organization. Furthermore, the panel argues that as UNPKOs are supposed to be carried out with impartiality, with the consent of the main parties to any conflict, and subsequent to a de facto ceasefire, any legal use of weapons within such missions to protect other civilian and military members of a UNPKO, or civilians in general in a sudden breakdown of peace, should not be considered the constitutionally prohibited “use of force to settle an international dispute.”

Based on similar logic, the panel also suggests that the SDF be allowed to, based on the rules of engagements and standards set down for UNPKOs, remove obstructions to UNPKO missions, and also to allow protection of civilians and the maintenance of security within the context of UNPKOs taking place in fragile states.

In addition to cooperation on gray zone contingencies, the Komeito appears in the last few days to have agreed to allow some relaxation of the use of weapons within UNPKOs might be justified since they believe public opinion is accepting of the use of weapons in such limited cases.

2. Protection and Rescue of Japanese Nationals Abroad

Citing the 2013 Algerian terrorist incident, the kondankai has also suggested the need to allow, within the limits prescribed by international law, for the SDF to come to the rescue and protect Japanese nationals abroad and, if necessary, use weapons to accomplish their missions beyond simple self-preservation. Until this incident the Japanese government had limited ability to dispatch the SDF to allow the protection of Japanese citizens abroad. The kondankai suggests that this is not sufficient and the SDF should be given greater powers. The panel argues that under international law the protection and rescue of nationals abroad is permitted if consent is given by the territorial state, therefore making them “efforts to supplement or substitute security activities of the territorial state.” They also argue that international norms, and previous statements by the Japanese government on these norms, allow the dispatch of military personnel to protect their nationals when another state does not have the will or capacity to protect them against severe attacks on foreign nationals, and could be considered the exercise of self-defense as the responsibility of the state.

The LDP and Komeito coalition will make these issues the top priority for collaboration in the new Diet session in the second half of 2014. It will be subsequent to this, likely in the autumn, that the debate over collective self-defense will heat up between the LDP and Komeito, although deliberations will start in the House of Councillors this month, as is the House of Councillors wont.

A Hiatus

I am coming to a crucial part of my PhD studies (the end) and I don’t have as much time to pay attention to the comings and goings of Japanese domestic politics right now. I will attempt to post something (or some things) just before the election later this year in July, but don’t be too surprised if there is little other than that.

I have jotted down a few thoughts at JSW regarding a recent NY Times article which had the rather unnecessary headline of “Japan Moving Further Away from Pacifism.”

It isn’t short, but if you have the time and interest, then by all means.

While it Has Gone Quiet within the Senkakus…

The PRC response has finally come through over the last 24 hours. But it has been unsatisfying and shaky, ranging from surprise, to righteous condemnation of Japan’s motives, declaring the incident to be an “absolute fabrication,” now to arguing that the MSDF was silly enough to mistake a surveillance/early warning radar for a fire control radar (that would be indeed be silly, since the Yudachi engaged in evasive manoeuvres to escape the Chinese frigate!)

The Japanese have dug their feet in first by saying that the Chinese response is simply not good enough and for them to go away and think about it more carefully. Then Minister of Defense Onodera has come out and suggested (日) that there was certainly no mistake and that they have video, photographic, and if needed, electronic evidence of the supposed infraction. Onodera argues that, a “normal” radar “spins” while it is monitoring while a fire-control radar continuously tracks the “target” as it moves. 「通常のレーダーはくるくる回って警戒監視をするが、火器管制レーダーはその(目標の)方向に向けてずっと追いかける」

He also said that in addition to the confirmation of this through visual imagery, they have electronic records as well which were carefully analysed by an expert at Yokosuka Naval Base on return. Onodera emphasised that a fire-control radar is a specialized radar that emits a type of electromagnetic wave with a distinctive wave frequency.  「電波を発する機械で、しかも(周波数などが)特殊なレーダーだ。それもしっかり記録しており、証拠として間違いない」

That said, the Japanese government is still considering releasing these records due to it possibly revealing sensitive national security information. It is understood that some in the MOD are not too keen to reveal more than images.

On the bright side, a number of Japanese news agencies have all noticed that PRC incursions around the Senkaku Islands themselves have reduced since the Japanese made their accusations. It will be interesting to see if they double down on the various broad accusations they have made, or whether they will approach the Japanese for a face-saving way out of the issue (for a price perhaps?)1. Or simply ignore it? (the “pfffft….whatever” strategy that the PRC uses when things are really tricky)

Extra:

Jun Okumura has also been putting up more timely analysis regarding the latest radar incident.

Kyle Mizokami has an interesting thought experiment up at JSW regarding what could have happened between the two vessels involved in the incident militarily, if you are that way inclined.

1 This price could be an agreement along the lines of an agreement not to do such things again in the future such as I mentioned Japan and Russia have agreed to (a tacit admission that that is what happened and removes that particular tactic from the PRC toolbox). Or the implementation of a maritime “hotline” mechanism which has been mooted over the last few years and was apparently making progress towards implementation before the Senkaku controversy erupted late last year. The PRC ambassador in Japan two days ago recognized (日) the need for such a mechanism. The one risk for the PRC with such a hotline is that if it is called upon it may reveal weaknesses and irregularities in terms of the political and military chain of command, a consideration very relevant if we assume that this recent incident is a PLA-level rather than Xi Jinping-level instigated incident. Okumura above even suggests that a dialing down, but not elimination, of Chinese government patrol boats entering into Senkaku waters may be possible, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

Those Dramatic Japanese…

This China Daily “report” demonstrates two notable things.

1)  Japan’s campaign to accuse Chinese radars of “locking onto” a Japanese warship is more like a “political drama…Jiang Xinfeng, an expert on Japanese studies at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, said a radar’s “locking on” is a common and constant reconnaissance practice in regular missions, and the other side usually reciprocates”

Suspicion and skepticism of the US or Japan’s general motives is one thing, but to belittle a rather provocative act in such a way is galling.

Interestingly, this Asahi article (日) notes that while Japan and Russia (for example) have exchanged an agreement banning such actions due to the potential for it to lead to conflict, Japan and China have not exchanged such an agreement. Nevertheless, rather than a “common practice”, it can be regarded as a simulated attack by global standards. With Defense Minister Onodera declaring (日) that such action may be equivalent to the “threat of the use of force,” and thus proscribed by the UN Charter,1 it is unlikely that the Japanese government is going to accept one Jiang Xinfeng’s assertion of innocent naivety.2  

2) “Although the Shinzo Abe cabinet chose a temporary friendly posture for thawing ties, it is still hyping the ‘China threat’,”

While Japanese hawks and conservatives are liable to do such things, the sad fact in this case is that they don’t need to. It is all too easy. With Abe resurrecting the idea of a National Security Council and putting it up for expert discussion not long before the announcement of the incident, this is quite a gift to the administration, especially given the MOD’s apparently (日) slow response in analysing and announcing the actions.

My former supervisor (pro-PRC scholar) liked to say that the biggest consumers of the “China Threat” theory were the Chinese people themselves and not seemingly cynical, suspicious, or racist Westerners. The government and the domestic media would usually take PRC-skeptical overseas content and frame it in a way for the public to show that China was unjustifiably seen as a threat. Pointing to international anti-Chinese sentiment was an important part of CCP regime maintenance as it tried to frame the outside world as a hostile place where anything less than the continuation of a stable, committed and strong Chinese government (the CCP!) could end in the loss of international power and respect for China, and even the loss of sovereignty and a repeat of the century of humiliation.

Lately, however, it seems that the Chinese media is becoming one of the biggest producers of the “China threat” theory, as deliciously demonstrated by the above China Daily report. With the victimization narrative seemingly in place and established in the minds of many, skipping the middle man is so much easier. It is also a great way to avoid taking seriously anything that you may find uncomfortable.

This article also contains further cloying examples of feigned counter-outrage (or perhaps the more succinct 逆切れ) including:

On the eve of (Shinzo Abe’s) upcoming visit to the US, using ‘radar targeting’ to hype up a ‘China threat’ as a bargaining chip to persuade the US to ‘relax restraints’ may be the Abe cabinet’s painstakingly crafted ruse

Japan has “other motives in being the guilty party accusing the victim” over this issue…To win more bargaining chips, Japan chose this moment to suddenly create the tense atmosphere of an imminent Sino-Japanese military conflict to seek concessions from the US on easing restrictions on its right of collective self-defence3

Maybe. But it is all rather besides the point.

1 Including in the defense of territorial integrity, unless there is a corresponding use of force by the other side.
2 The head of the MOD’s Defense Policy Bureau did confirm (日) that the Chinese vessel’s cannons were not positioned towards the MSDF ship during the initial period of radar “painting.” Whether or not it is a breach of the UN Charter, which may be a thin thread to hang this on to be honest, it is certainly a breach of global military custom and common sense. The SDF seamen aboard would have certainly not felt particularly comfortable during the period that the radar was “locked on” to their vessel.
It is less than clear what the relationship is here. It isn’t really the US that Japan has to convince to exercise the right of collective self-defense to protect US vessels. It is irrelevant to the incident in question in this particular case in any respect. 

The Fire-Control Radar Incident: Incompetence or Malice?

When last year’s Defense White Paper (“Defense of Japan”) came out there was much media commentary over whether it represented a new direction for Japanese security policy towards China. I argued at the Shingetsu News Agency that such rhetoric was somewhat alarmist, and that there were more continuities in the document than deviations. Clearly not an avid reader of this blog or SNA, the Chinese government seemed to think otherwise. They particularly took issue with the concern raised by the Japanese MOD regarding whether “civilian control” was really being observed in China. The MOD noted that the relationship between the CCP and the PLA was becoming more “complex,” which is far more generous than many China analysts, sympathetic or otherwise, would have been. Apparently however pointing this out was evidence of “militarists” having taken over the security agenda in Japan.

We got a crystal clear expression of why the MOD was right to raise this concern during the back and forth over the fire-control radar “painting” incident this week.

Not only did the Chinese offer a “no comment” when first asked, but in follow up questioning the Chinese MOFA admitted (日) that the first they knew of the issue was when the Japanese government announced it, and that it is necessary to ask the “responsible agency”「われわれも報道で知った。具体的な状況は承知しておらず、(別の)関連部署に聞いてほしい」!!

That is not going to be reassuring to the Japanese. At all.

Either the MOFA genuinely did not about this and is expressing its anger at PLA in a very bizarre and impotent way, or, the MOFA is playing a part in a cynical attempt to deflect international attention from a clear provocation deserving criticism. Either way it does not bode well.

Trust also that this incident is not a minor issue.

When the Japanese government recently wondered out loud whether it would employ the use of warning shots whenever a Chinese aircraft entered Senkaku airspace, this was seen as provocative. Fair enough, although we need to note two things. One, it was just talk and was always unlikely to go further than that and such talk was quietly discontinued- a sensible decision in my estimation. Two, while provocative and more a last resort, the use of warning flares, is, for better or worse, a relatively common way of of letting an aircraft and its pilots know that they are doing something utterly unacceptable.

The actual use of fire-control radar, for example, to express annoyance at MSDF vessels tracking Chinese vessels at a distance  in the East China Sea (3kms in this case) as some have suggested, is however, not part of any standard operating procedure or in the rules for peaceful maritime engagement. The last time something like this happened in 2005, when a  PLA(N) destroyer aimed its guns at an MSDF surveillance aircraft near the Chunxiao/Shirakaba gas field, Japanese defense analysts remained touchy for some time. This is worse than that and it will certainly be in next year’s Defense White Paper. And as Kevin Maher notes  (日) in the Japanese media, again for better or worse, if this happened to a US vessel, then the Chinese vessel would not have a “few minutes” as it did with the MSDF vessel before the initiation of a forceful response.

The Chinese response to this is important for many in the security community in Japan, many of whom are level-headed and traditionally have not even been particularly antagonistic towards China. At least, certainly less so than some of Japan’s politicians. From the point of view of many in this community, an unfortunate diplomatic contrast will become obvious.

When Japan makes mere mention of using the provocative but “valid” option of firing warning flares to direct a Chinese government aircraft out of contested territory under Japan’s control, a high-ranking Chinese defense official comes out with nationalistic bombast along the lines of “if Japan were to dare using such an option around the Senkakus, we would not wait to see what the follow up would be.”

Japan retreats.

When a Chinese maritime vessel paints a MSDF vessel 3kms away with a fire-control radar on the open sea for a number of minutes, the MSDF performs “standard evasive maneuvers” like it is a training exercise, and retreats. The Japanese government thinks about it for a few days, collects data, and then makes a diplomatic protest. What will China’s response be? Obfuscation? Defiance? Apology? It will matter to many, and not just the public and the usual political suspects keen to exploit the issue for political gain.

Pinning Down the LDP

What does the DPJ, and/or the opposition in general, need to do before the House of Councillors elections in the second half of the year to either have a chance of preventing the LDP gaining a majority in both houses, or, at least make it difficult for the LDP post-election to do as it wishes, potentially to the detriment of the nation?

Abe is off to a good start in terms of managing the narrative about his second stint in the PM’s chair, without having really done all that much, domestically at least. At least for now it appears that he has reversed the recent (or is it?) trend of prime ministers careening downhill in support ratings from day one (with only minor recoveries) in charge, although that may be a function of very low expectations, pessimism, and psycho-political exhaustion on the part of the Japanese citizenry. From the DPJ’s point of view, despite being punished and chastened, it is doing even worse in public opinion polls, which will likely lead to another thrashing in the July House of Councillors elections. The DPJ will have to be rather careful about the particular fights it picks, and arguably will need to cooperate on certain policy and legislative programs to gain any visibility. Being seen to be obstructive while Abe is on the upswing is, after the last two experiences of both obstructionist DPJ and LDP oppositions is going to test the public’s patience. At the very least, from the public’s point of view, the DPJ could assist in implementing policy in opposition, something which it failed to do, for reasons for which it is equally culpable, while in government.

However, the DPJ and others will be very aware that the LDP will try and only deal with the easy and/or the “popular” policy issues, or issues that make it look like it is being constructive (in contrast to the Tanigaki era), while trying to keep internal peace within the party and within the LDP-Komeito coalition until at least after 2013 HoC elections, something that the DPJ failed to do in the lead up to the 2010 HoC elections in terms of its issue selection and party management. The opposition will need to complicate this picture as much as possible, even if to save the country from a potentially rather extreme agenda.

The Abe administration has been evasive on a number of issues. Abe himself has only been prominent in foreign policy and has tightly controlled information and is managing access to  his person so as to avoid as much controversy as possible. So far his cabinet appears to have been reasonably disciplined in terms of (not making) gaffes. While Abe and his conservative proxies have sent out a number of signals regarding the more nationalist aspects of the agenda, Abe and top government officials have been saying very little about what Abe may or may not exactly do in regards to issues like changing the constitution and/or revising the constitutional ban on collective-self defense, and relooking at some of the issues and statement regarding Japan’s wartime behaviour.

The goal for the DPJ in particular will thus be to pin the Abe administration down on a variety of issues and ensure that it actually has to at least make clear statements about what it is going to do post-HoC election in terms of:

1) The TPP.

The administration has indicated that they will put off a decision until after the HoC election. It may be that the LDP is expecting that there will be realization that the TPP is too optimistic and that, after all, some “exceptions” will become allowable. There is a general sense that  2013 will probably be the last year where the different sides attempt to negotiate the most aspirational/ideal form of the TPP. Even alliance managers in DC have noted that it is unlikely the US itself will strike a free trade deal with no exceptions. Japan and the LDP will likely be ready to join if this realization does indeed come about. From the opposition’s point of view, however, letting the LDP have its own way in this regard is far too easy, especially given how much agony the DPJ suffered even just talking about maybe, possibly, joining the talks.* Pro- and anti-TPP forces will attempt to push Abe on this issue closer to the House of Councillors elections, even if just to stir dissent within the LDP itself.

2) House of Representatives Electoral Reform.

Abe made a promise to Noda when Noda called the election late last year that more thorough electoral reform would be considered in the next Diet session. Much like with Noda’s promise to hold an election “soon” around negotiations with the LDP and Komeito on consumption tax, the opposition will need to make this an issue of honesty and probity of the new government. If Abe takes up this promise AFTER the House of Councillors election, and after a majority has been secured in both houses, then it hardly needs to be said that the outcome is going to be very bleak for opposition government for some time in Japan.

3) The Murayama and Kono Statements, and the Yasukuni Shrine visit.

This is a really important issue that the DPJ in particular just cannot let the administration get away from in terms of committing decisively one way or another. Arguably this is not just to complicate things within the LDP itself, and to make the issue difficult for the Abe administration by putting some much needed daylight between the general public and the noisy revisionist base, but should be addressed as an issue of vital national importance. Japan’s competition for various nations’ affections, both in and outside Asia is going remarkably well while China is starting to make people, even former moderates and sympathizers in the region and beyond, more uncomfortable. A replacement in any way of either of the two statements, the Murayama one in particular, will eliminate almost all gains almost instantly. My personal theory is that the current talk about the various statements represents a form of “dog whistle” politics purposefully undertaken while the public is distracted during new years and by talk over “Abenomics” and the economy, that will not end up coming to anything substantial. This, other things being equal, should be mainly because Abe surely (?!) knows how bad such acts would be for Japan’s relationships with the very countries that are critical to its national interests, including his own foreign policy agenda. It may be that, irrespective of how much Abe himself would like to give this group what it wants, he will string the revisionist base a long for the meantime and give them hope – after all, who else but Abe and this particular cabinet would help them realize their dreams of “restoring Japanese pride” or whatever it is that they believe is so vital.  The issue for Abe is that the public will likely give Abe some leeway to address other issues for a period of time, but this will not last. And it would be unforgivable for the opposition to let the issue of absolute commitment (or otherwise) to the two statements slide before the July election, especially if I am wrong in terms of my personal theory. As for making an issue of a potential Abe visit to Yasukuni Jinja after the July election, this may have to depend on future events. It is likely that the direct fallout either way in the current environment domestically will be negligible, unless Abe jeopardizes an improvement in relations with China by visiting the shrine. If relations are still tense, and Chinese boats in and around the Senkakus come August, then the public may be rather unaccommodating in terms of concerning themselves with Chinese criticism on this issue. The implications for foreign policy management will be somewhat more challenging, of course, and may indirectly hurt Abe both at home and abroad, although not as bad as revision of the Murayama and Kono statements would be.

4) Constitutional Change, Security Policy, and Emergency Response.

This is a potentially complicated one for the opposition. There are first of all, actually areas of overlap in terms of what the various political groups would like to see in terms of changes to Japan’s security policy – as the Algerian disaster unfolds with a very likely high number of Japanese fatalities, this may further push the various groups together. This is one area where striking an inherently antagonistic pose to the LDP and Abe’s agenda may backfire, especially if he builds political capital through a successful, even if short-term, economic recovery and/or the implementation of a coherent (even if mistaken) economic plan and growth strategy. In order to moderate perhaps some of the more unwise elements of the agenda, the opposition may have to commit to working with the government in a proactive way and attempt to build a consensus around security policy and a timetable for constitutional revision, by embracing a process that appeals to the public in terms of it being sufficiently deliberative and not rushed, and moderate (AKA legitimate, cf. “constitutional reinterpretation”). It may be wise for the DPJ to get out ahead of the LDP and the public, which has, and may even more so, become more hawkish (but not necessarily “militaristic”) in 2013 regarding regional security. This is of course notwithstanding an unlikely turnaround in the Chinese approach to East Asia in general, and the policy of challenging Japan’s effective control over the Senkaku Islands in particular. I suspect here the key is to restrain, not to obstruct. While the Diet already has its own process for looking at the constitution and revision, it appears that it is treading water. Perhaps the DPJ should take the initiative prior to the election but with sufficient time for the LDP to commit or reject, and propose a multi-partisan commission of some sort that will also solicit the views of the public and other stakeholders. The Komeito (who really actually doesn’t want the LDP to do too well in July, but can’t really say so out loud) may be sufficiently concerned with its LDP coalition partner and could be open to backing such a proposal. If Ishihara can be sidelined even further in favour of Hashimoto et al, then the JRP may also be amenable to such a proposal as it would likely give them more visibility and not let the LDP have its way in terms of making the running around security issues within that proportion of the public interested in a stronger security policy.

One of the advantages of Noda’s “early” call for the election is that 7 months is sufficient time to allow the public to get to know the Abe administration, 2.0. If the public is still not one hundred percent sure of what Abe might do on some very important and consequential issues come July, they may be very reluctant to turn over both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors to the administration for potentially up to three years without a clear policy program. It is only fair to the public for the opposition to at some point start asking the right questions and to be relentless in doing so, but by also being constructive at the same time.

* One remembers that when Maehara Seiji, early on in the TPP talks during the DPJ era, came out and suggested that ultimately if the TPP was going to work against Japan’s national interests that Japan could, and should, withdraw from negotiations. Maehara was of course, 100 percent correct, even if saying so was very unwise. And indeed it was unwise – the DPJ and Maehara was assailed for being “naive” and “inappropriate” and all other manner of things. Perhaps fairly so. Nevertheless, fast forward two to three years and a top level LDP official said pretty much the same thing – to thunderous silence and a deafening lack of concern within the media.