After previous South China Sea interviews here and here, I also had a nice chat with Ken Moritsugu from AP regarding the South China Sea in the middle of month just before top SDF officials and the Japanese MOD started talking more about the “possibility” of Japan taking on a more prominent military role in the South China Sea.
Is Japan really getting involved?
In what form?
How big a change in Japan’s postwar security policy would venturing into the SCS be?
Is this a good idea? Japan-China relations?
Next Steps for the SDF?
Is the SDF ready to take on an expanded role?
In terms of time, there will be another month or more of deliberations in the upper house. This in itself could lead to further leakage of support for the Abe administration, even if no further problems arise. The other key point is that LDP members in the House of Councillors have traditionally been a lot more independent, and if the House of Councillors’ LDP and coalition party Komeito members get concerned about public opinion, then this could cause trouble for the Abe administration. Some will be up for election mid-2016, after all.
Below are some lightly edited remarks provided to the ever-busy Justin McCurry, writing for the Christian Science Monitor on recent suggestions that Japan may take up a great military role in the South China Sea, here.
The prospect of greater SDF involvement in the SCS has been on the radar for a number of years, but I see the timing of bringing this up as being connected to progress on the US-Japan Revised Guidelines. Greater integration of regional operational activities between the US and Japan will be the likely outcome of the negotiations over the revised guidelines that will be finalized sometime this year.
Japan responding favourably to Admiral Thomas’ statement will demonstrate its commitment to increased “burden sharing” in East Asia through the US-Japan alliance; but I would still imagine this will not be a big focus of the negotiations and debate of security issues in the first half of this year. It is likely to be more of a long-term possibility. I don’t think it is posturing, and Prime Minister Abe and Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen would jump at the opportunity if they had the chance – but it is likely that there is an appreciation that the SDF taking on this role may not go ahead soon if debate over Japan’s security legislation gets particularly heated later this year.
In terms of regional reactions, clearly China will not react well – but I don’t think the PRC will change its behavior one way or another in response to this. I see no evidence that China would dial down its own activity in the region in regards to its territorial tensions with Philippines and Vietnam if the US or Japan were to pull back. In terms of the reaction of ASEAN nations, if Japanese patrols were initially very modest and within the operational framework of the alliance, I expect most ASEAN nations to be unconcerned, and Vietnam and the Philippines will welcome it. An independently acting Japan would be a different prospect, however, but that is not practically possible and is not really what the discussion is about at this point in time.
There are concerns, however, that the Abe administration is being unnecessarily provocative in even mentioning this.
On the face of it, it may indeed look unnecessary and inflammatory. And it is possible that US and Japanese leaders and officials may still judge it to be too inflammatory at a point in time when Japan is trying to improve relations with the PRC.
But if at some point “patrols” in the SCS do go ahead, the issue can be looked at from a wider view than just that of the Sino-Japanese relationship.
Certainly Japan does not have any direct territorial interests in the SCS, but Japan’s own national security will be greatly affected by any instability and conflict in the SCS, making it a legitimate stakeholder. Few countries anywhere are as dependent on regional maritime approaches as Japan is for both its resources and its income. For this reason, Japan has already been playing a security role in the region for some time, through its anti-piracy initiatives in region cooperating with littoral ASEAN nations. It has also been a critical part of the response to natural disasters in the region. It is likely that Japan would not be patrolling the region in an independent fashion at this point in time, and it will be cooperating with the US and perhaps the Australian navies, especially now that Australian warships have embedded with the 7th Fleet.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is whether Japan can in practical terms commit to more than just symbolic cooperation in the SCS. A larger commitment of resources could potentially lead to strategic vacuums opening up elsewhere closer to Japan itself, which is still the SDF’s primary responsibility. Without significantly greater investment in the defense budget, Japan’s power projection capabilities will remain modest. There is a great risk of overextending the MSDF in particular, which may not be strategically very wise. This has been an issue with conservatives like Koizumi and Abe – they have big strategic plans for the SDF and the alliance but they do not always appreciate the strategic and resource risks inherent in widening the range of roles and the geographic scope of operations that Japan’s defense officials do.
That said, the Japanese government is quite sensitive about the possibility of there being a future weakening of US commitment to the region in general, and even a symbolic commitment will allow Japan to start to position itself better in the regional strategic order should the US’ strategic rebalance stagnate in the future.
Like the Algerian crisis in 2013, this crisis does further highlight Japan’s vulnerability to global terrorism. But in some important ways this case is quite different from the Algerian case. The Japanese public in the past has been much less forgiving of individuals who have sought to place themselves in direct conflict zones, while the Algerian situation will be seen as a direct attack on Japan’s citizens and national interests. Even in reaction to this very brazen attack in Algeria, the Japanese government only went as far as strengthening its ability to use military transportation to evacuate citizens. I’d be inclined to think that if the Algerian attack did not rouse the Japanese public and enable the passing of more substantive security legislation, then this event may not be a game changer.
In practical terms, it is unclear what the Japanese government can do in this situation since it does not have the legal or military capability to undertake special forces or other military operations in the Middle East. Aside from the very unlikely possibility that the US and NATO partners have the necessary intelligence to mount a rescue operation on Japan’s behalf, Japan can do little but express support diplomatically for the fight against terrorism. Looking forward, the best option may be for the Japanese government strengthen the working relationship between the SDF and NATO militaries as it has already sought to do over the last three to four years, since Japan is not likely to build the necessary power projection capabilities any time soon.
If the two men are executed, then immediate anger will probably strengthen Abe’s argument in the short-term that Japan needs to be more mindful of the international nature of threats to Japan’s security and the need to cooperate with the US and its allies.
If Japan had of been providing military aid to the region, then the narrative might have been different, and it could have hurt Abe. The fact that Japan was providing humanitarian aid and was still targeted will suggest that IS is a particularly dangerous and implacable adversary to the Japanese public. But I doubt that Japan will do much more than provide additional non-military and infrastructure aid at this point in response to the possible tragedy.
However, it will almost certainly inject energy and controversy into the drafting of Japan’s new security legislation later this year. Already, subsequent to the 2014 December election, the Komeito had extracted general commitments in negotiations from the LDP to effectively limit the geographic scope of new so-called “collective self-defense” legislation. Those who are already inclined to see any Japanese coordination with foreign militaries as a negative will see this as evidence of why Japan should continue to be circumspect about taking on a higher military profile, while those wanting to see a higher military profile will see this as evidence that Japan cannot afford to sit back and hope other nations can take care of Japan’s security and interests. It will be a source of controversy, which will probably be unwelcome for Abe as Abe lacks the political skill of Koizumi when it comes to managing the public on highly controversial issues of broad public concern such as Japan’s overseas military presence.
In the long-term, as the anger in Japan subsides, it could complicate the passage of defense legislation later this year if that legislation raises the possibility of Japan providing significant military aid to US and NATO operations in the Middle East. While the Japanese public is slowly becoming more comfortable with the SDF and the US military playing an increased role together in (East Asian) regional security, they are still very sceptical about some Japanese politicians’ claims that the Middle East also represents a pressing concern for Japan’s security requiring a Japanese military response, other than perhaps for protecting sea lanes from pirates. Komeito was probably the big winner from the recent election, and insiders have suggested this meant that one of more contentious pieces of legislation – Japanese minesweeping during an ongoing conflict (possibly in the Middle East) – will probably be off the table later this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the long-term consequences on CSD legislation were minimal, especially since CSD operations have little to do with what might be required in the current situation.
There has been chatter that Abe might want to let the hostages die, as this might help his agenda for revising the constitution.
Leaving aside the cynicism inherent in such a suggestion, if the arguably more serious Algerian situation did not rouse the Japanese public to support changes allowing direct Japanese military intervention, it seems unlikely that this particular situation will galvanise it. The media impact of this event might be greater than Algeria, but as time passes, concern may subside.
Furthermore, the types of constitutional changes to Article 9 that could pass the Diet and public opinion at this point in time will fall far, far short of allowing high profile rescue operations inside the territory of other nations.
Overall, I generally agree with MTC and Tobias Harris that while this election looks like a thumping victory, it may not necessarily enhance Abe’s ability to implement the third arrow of Abenomics and national security and constitutional changes. It will, however, have a positive short-term impact upon Abe’s ability to continue to implement the first two arrows of Abenomics relating to fiscal spending and changing the basis of taxation (particularly the corporate tax), and the continuation of BOJ-led monetary easing.
I perhaps differ a little with MTC in that I would say that the gamble has paid off, although only just. If nothing else, Abe has two more years, which if he uses it wisely and patiently (a big assumption in itself) in terms of issue selection, could result in eventual success.
He is also less likely to face a challenger in September election. A poor result in the election would have made that almost inevitable, and he has avoided this humiliation.
Now, an even more disastrous downturn in the economy or demonstration of administrative incompetence is probably required in order for a genuine challenger to emerge. Prior to Abe calling the election, the simple eating away of Abe’s support rate ahead of the 2015 LDP presidency election (as was already taking place), and the prospect of a 2016 HoR-HoC double election, would have been enough to stimulate significant concern within the LDP and a challenger. Now the House of Representatives members of the LDP will be somewhat calmed. But nine months is still a longtime, and Ishiba Shigeru waits in the wings should something unexpected take place.
I do feel, given expectations around an even more dominating victory, that Abe may have lost a little bit of momentum, nonetheless. While much has been made of the low turnout rate, it is also important to note, as MTC does, that the LDP’s PR percentage was merely a third of all votes. Expectations were that the LDP would get around 40 percent of the vote in PR at the very least. Also important to note is that the LDP’s victories in the single-member districts (SMDs) were even more dependent on the Komeito than was previously the case, which will give LDP leaders pause.
Indeed, the real winners of the election were:
While Komeito increased the number of seats by four, compared to a LDP three-seat loss, more important was the effective elimination of two alternative parties (Your Party and the Next Generation Party) that Abe would most likely use in any intra-coalition power play to chasten a recalcitrant Komeito on security issues in particular. Furthermore, MTC estimates in the context of low voter turnout that the LDP may have been reliant on Komeito for up to 25 percent of its SMDs’ votes. If low voter turnout is going to be the new norm in Japan, then attempts to bludgeon Komeito into submission through threats of coalition dissolution will have even less credibility.
The Japan Innovation Party
In its former incarnation, the JRP was also a party that Abe could use in the manner articulated above. However, with the separation from Ishihara and merger with Eda Kenji’s Your Party offshoot, the party has embraced a more moderate, reform orientated and urban-focused party image and policy platform not so dissimilar to the original DPJ. While Hashimoto still sees areas of cooperation with Abe, incentives point in the opposite direction (as discussed below). In any respect, Hashimoto declining to run in this election enhances Eda Kenji’s leadership of the party in the Diet. With the arch-conservative Party for Future Generations being essentially obliterated, and the more moderate JIP holding its own in the PR segment of the vote, then this election may well have consolidated JIP’s electoral relevance and pointed the way to a sustainable strategy for political positioning. And as one of Abe’s ulterior motives for the election was the effective elimination of the electoral relevance of other non-left parties, then victory can be declared in the JIP only losing one seat overall.
The Japan Communist Party
The JCP came close to tripling its representation. While it may be tempting to portray the JCP as really being a principled social democratic party with an unusual relic of a name, until we see any sort of engagement with policymaking, and cooperation and compromise (god-forbid) with other non-LDP parties, then I am reluctant to ascribe much relevance to this development. But 13 more communists will collect a solid salary than prior to the election. That said, the JCP will now be able to submit non-budgetary bills to the Diet, so maybe they will prove me wrong. In any respect, a win for the communists (a phrase one does not hear often these days).
(rokunin-shu – formerly known as the nana-bugyou 七奉行)
The leaders of the so-called “mainstream” of the DPJ not only see Kaieda Banri fail for the second time, leaving the way open for one of their ilk to take over the DPJ leadership, but also lose his seat. This in theory makes realignment much more manageable as members of this grouping (Okada Katsuya, Maehara Seiji, Azumi Jun, Edano Yukio, Gemba Koichiro, Noda Yoshihiko), along with Hosono Goshi, have increasingly been putting out feelers to the JIP after Ishihara and Hashimoto split the JRP.
Implications for realignment
As noted by CFR’s Shelia Smith, this election was a lesson in why it is important for the opposition to present itself as a genuine alternative with its own ideas. This rings especially true when we consider how little success the DPJ and JIP had in Tokyo’s SMDs despite some degree of cooperation and favourable electoral dynamics. Nevertheless, it would surprise me if DPJ-JIP realignment or a merger took place soon, although a Hosono Goshi or Maehara Seiji victory in the January 2015 DPJ elections might change the dynamics somewhat. Currently, I would say Edano and Hosono have the inside running, but the current leadership vacuum in the DPJ could result in almost anything happening.
While the JIP has moved more closely to the mainstream of the DPJ than many have perhaps realised, there is still a key sticking point around labour legislation and labour unions. The fact that the JIP did better than many expected on the PR ticket suggests that the more moderate strategy has the potential to work, and also means that it will likely not be absorbed into the DPJ as a rump party. Hashimoto was disappointed by the election result, but his political relevance has not been obliterated by the election as many expected. In fact, with the 2016 House of Councillors election, there is an even greater chance that the JIP can establish itself as a genuine political force. Not only can it represent itself as the non-Rengo beholden alternative to the LDP and eat into the LDP’s base, especially if third arrow reforms stagnate ahead of 2016, but the JIP has a great chance to radically eat into the DPJ’s House of Councillors seat tally. In 2016, 41 out of the current 58 DPJ House of Councillors candidates will be up for election. Remember, the DPJ lost 27 out of the 44 seats it had up for election in the first post-DPJ government election in 2013, with many going to the JRP, Your Party, and some going back to the LDP. Furthermore, the electoral system for the House of Councillors (as it currently stands) provides less incentive for a formal amalgamation or even cooperation between the two parties in urban areas compared to a House of Representatives election with many SMDs. In 2013, 42 out of the 73 non-PR seats up for grabs were in more urban or suburban multi-member districts, with a further 48 seats distributed on the basis of proportional representation.
If such realignment is going to take place, current logic would suggest the JIP would do well to hold out until after the 2016 election and see where things stand after the dust settles. It may even be able to negotiate realignment from a position of strength without as much consideration of the still electorally influential Rengo. Either way, while one election outcome is that Abe (potentially) has four more years of rule, the opposition has fewer players and four more years to sort itself out.
MTC has already covered off the importance of the headline support rates from the post-GDP shock Kyodo and Asahi opinion polls now out. A few more should come over the next few days.
In short, they show loss in faith in Abe, but not a catastrophic reduction in support for either the PM or the LDP at this point. If the election was held today, the likely result would be a pretty solid “victory” with the LDP-Komeito coalition easily getting over the 270 seat mark that LDP and Komeito strategists have identified as the minimum acceptable line for a reduction in the coalition’s House of Representatives majority.
Looking deeper into the Asahi poll (jp) certainly reveals enough doubts about Abe’s policy program that give a glimmer of hope for opposition parties that they may be able to push the coalition a bit harder. That is, at least in comparison with when serious discussion of a snap election first arose a few weeks ago.
Monday’s news on the economy does appear to have hurt Abe when compared to a NTV poll taken just two days prior to the announcement of 3rd quarter GDP figures when it was already clear that the consumption tax would be delayed and an election called. In this pre-Monday poll only 32 percent thought Abenomics had failed, 51 percent didn’t think so (66 percent didn’t think Abenomics was progressing according to another question in the same survey). In the post-Monday Asahi survey, while not an exactly equivalent question, we see failure rising above “success” with 39 percent believing Abe having failed, and 30 percent thinking it was a success, with assumedly 31 percent not sure.
62 percent of Asahi respondents are opposed to the election (18 percent agreeing) and 65 percent (25 percent accepting) said they did not accept Abe’s reasoning for calling the election (to go to the people in regards to delaying the consumption tax). In the Kyodo survey, 63.1 percent said they could not fathom the reason for the election, with 30 percent accepting the reasoning. 66 percent of respondents were opposed to the election in the aforementioned NTV poll, even when framed in terms of a delay in the consumption tax increase.
In terms of Abe saying he would definitely have to put the consumption tax up in April 2017, in the Asahi poll 49 percent did not evaluate positively this assertion, while 33 percent did. In a straight yes or no on putting the tax up in April 2017, 49 percent were against this, and 39 percent were in favour. Abe committing to the 2017 sales tax rise while going to people to get support for the delay and his economic policies will certainly send a confusing message for the public in terms of what kind of mandate he is asking for. One of the big challenges of this election will be how to interpret the results – of course Abe and Suga have their own views on what this election is and is not about – but for the rest of us it is unclear what it is precisely that Abe wants to claim to be able to do post-election (that he could not already do, legally or otherwise).
While it may be harder for the opposition to get traction on this, despite its significance IMHO, the Asahi also asked a question relating to reform of the House of Representatives and reduction of its size. Abe agreed in 2012 to the consumption tax legislation and to cutting the House of Representatives before the next election as a symbol of government sacrifice. However, only 5 seats have been reduced to deal with the voter-value disparity (ineffectively, it is already over 2:1 again); equally important is that discussion on the electoral features of a new House of Representatives have only gotten to the stage of agreeing on a third-party mechanism for discussing options. When asked how much of a problem it was that Abe was calling an election before implementing the promised reduction in House of Representatives size, 39 percent of respondent said they thought it was a big problem, and 38 percent said it was problem to a degree.
In terms of the implications of the headline support rates, we will probably see a solid loss of seats in the single member districts (SMDs) by the LDP, but many of those candidates will likely be revived on the PR list. Notwithstanding some exogenous or unexpected event, I would expect to see the LDP gain around 20 to 25 seats on the PR list, picking up the more conservative supporters of parties like the now defunct JRP and Your Party.
According to my own perfunctory analysis on the SMDs, there are 29 districts that the opposition should easily take back from the LDP by the simple act of cooperating with each other, and there are a further 32 SMDs that should be in play if the opposition coordinates and runs a moderately successful campaign. Greater gains in a further 50 or more seats would only be likely if some serious unexpected game changer enters into the election, although in that case I would expect that to also impact upon the PR support rate as well. A lot depends on the opposition coordinating, however, although there are some signs that in some of the key SMD regions some tough decisions (jp) are being made (such as in Tokyo where somehow the LDP managed to win a majority of seats despite its candidates seldom winning more than 35 percent of the votes cast). There are also some signs that some of the more controversial members of the DPJ old guard are retiring, such as Sengoku Yoshito and Tanaka Makiko, which is probably only a benefit for the DPJ. As MTC notes, pretending the Kaieda Banri doesn’t exist might also be of help.
That said, at this stage I would expect the LDP-Komeito coalition to only lose 35 seats (including the five seats that no longer exist).
I hope to refine this analysis over the coming three weeks based on new developments.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga was asked (jp) at a recent press conference whether, given the administration’s insistence on the sanctity of the principle of going to the public on big policy decisions, the election would also be about getting the public’s verdict on collective self-defense changes implied by the July 1 cabinet declaration. Suga responded that as constitutional revision is in the LDP’s manifesto, then it was not necessary for them to get the public’s opinion on collective self-defense specifically, and implied that it was not as important a decision/significant policy change as Abe delaying a tax increase.
So, (controversially) changing the constitutional fabric of the nation without even a parliamentary vote is not a big decision, but putting off a tax increase which everyone supports and where you already have the statutory power to do so, is?
When reporters pushed back by pointing out to Suga that the secrets law was not written in the manifesto, he retorted “there is no need to go to the public on every issue…only for important changes.”
So, despite arguing for the last two years that both collective self-defense and the secrets law were essential for Japan’s national security, now they are suddenly not very important decisions?
This line of questioning came from Abe’s 18th November criticism of the DPJ for pursuing a consumption tax hike that was not indicated in its 2009 and 2010 election manifestos (although, it was certainly in the LDP’s manifesto!).
Criticism also came (jp) from the (quite far) right of the spectrum as well, with Next Generation sec-gen Yamada Hiroshi (likely exasperated that his party’s continued existence is doubtful) arguing that there was no need to dissolve the house, and that while a tax increase would justify going to the people, he’d never heard of a case where someone would go to the people for a tax reduction or to not implement a tax increase. Other opposition leaders have also raised the small technical problem of the fact that both the public and all the opposition parties support not increasing the consumption tax at this point, so it was not, philosophically speaking, possible for it to become an election issue of contention and the focal point of legitimation. Thus it was clear to everyone that the LDP was only acting on the basis of self-serving party and partisan interests. Two terms you are likely to hear a lot from the opposition over the next three weeks in this vein are 党利党略 (privileging party interests) and 自己中解散 (self-centered dissolution).