Japan’s Security Legislation (SCMP response)

Large sections originally in response to interview request for article: How ready is Japan to send its troops into battle after 70 years out of the firing line? Subsequently edited for clarity, expanded upon, and appended.

Also see Japan Times Article here for other comments on the security legislation (by @jljzen).

Next Steps for the SDF? 

First of all, the legislation has passed the House of Representatives but there still will be deliberations in the House of Councillors up until mid- to late-September. The government does control the upper house, or House of Councillors, but there are slightly different dynamics that could still collude to change the nature of the bills (see below).

That said, if the current legislation passes the House of Councillors in the exact form it is in now, then it is possible that we will see the SDF taking on expanded roles in “out of area” operations in the near future (ie beyond East Asia). Boiling it down, the legislation collectively will allow the SDF to get closer than ever before to front-line action of any military operations in the Middle East undertaken by the US or the UN. The SDF will not necessarily be able to proactively engage in hostilities on the front line of any conflict, but it will be able to provide various types of logistical and rear area support that blur even further the distinction between combat and non-combat zones that has structured SDF engagement abroad since the 1990s. And this is precisely what has been most controversial in the Japanese political discourse around the security bills, and the vagueness of the legislation itself on what precisely the SDF might do in any such operations has amplified this controversy.

I do think, however, more than Japan suddenly pursuing a significant overseas military footprint, the biggest practical change will be the enhancement of the working of the US-Japan alliance in the Northeast Asia region. The alliance has been moving towards greater integration for more or less 40 years for both Japan’s individual security and for regional security. This legislation will enhance this development and make it explicit that Japan’s SDF does have an important support role to play in regional military contingencies that also involve the United States.  North Korea and Taiwan (just quietly) are the most likely points of focus. The South China Sea may be another, although it seems that this is contingent on developments further down the line. Previous legislation in the late-1990s had made limited provisions for such regional roles, but as Japan’s individual security and regional security have become more intimately connected, the two governments are looking to relax further the restrictions placed on regional military cooperation during the 1990s.

I think in the short-term any further novel policy discussion arising from these bills will look at whether Japan should take on a greater military role in the South China Sea in concert with the US. This is still unsettled and, in terms of Japan’s military strategy, this would be a discrete and novel development that could arise out of these bills. A lot of other developments will be more explicit and strengthened versions of changes to Japan’s security posture and defense doctrine that started being implemented from the beginning of the DPJ administration.

Is the SDF ready to take on an expanded role?

While there is a consensus among Japanese defense and security policymakers that the SDF needs more legal flexibility, there are some internal reservations about the degree to which Japan can realistically expand its commitments beyond its largely self-defense-oriented posture. Japan certainly has relative military strengths in some capability areas, but the SDF is not really configured for sustained expeditionary operations that the US regularly undertakes globally, and it is not sufficiently resourced to consider greatly expanding this capability set. Without a quite significant increase in defense spending (well beyond the 1% of GDP “limit”), it is unlikely to be so configured in the future, either.

In fact, there may be worries that if Japan became more involved in the South China Sea or the Middle East, for example, this could undermine Japan’s focus on defensive deterrence at home. Germany is in some ways instructive for Japan – from the 1990s, Germany focused on developing its expeditionary capabilities and has let its more traditional defense capabilities and its military readiness at home atrophy somewhat, along with many other NATO members. Germany dispatched combat troops to Afghanistan, and now even its expeditionary capabilities have become severely degraded. With Russia becoming more menacing in Europe, this change in defensive orientation has subsequently been questioned, especially given how badly US and NATO intervention in the Middle East proceeded. The Germans are now resolving,at least, to address this issue. Of course, it is not necessarily an either/or problem, but Japanese policymakers are wary of over-commitment.

Is Japan psychologically ready for overseas combat?

Despite foreign fantasies of a samurai deeply and surreptitiously stirring in the Japanese collective psyche, no, Japan is not psychologically ready. This applies to both the SDF and its social contract with its citizens and the families of SDF members, and in terms of wider public sentiment. And despite the problems with government explanations and controversies surrounding these bills, it is unlikely that we will see Japan participating in any “wars” or overseas combat operations any time soon. Certainly these bills increase the risk that Japan may inadvertently get caught up in overseas conflict, and to deny otherwise as the government has is irresponsible, but the SDF’s overseas military footprint will remain far more restrained than even that which Germany has embraced in the post-Cold War era, notwithstanding severe changes in either the regional or global security environment. A significant reason for this is because of public opinion in Japan. While governments can override public opinion in terms of legislative preferences, as has happened in parliamentary proceedings in Japan recently, they do need sustained support for actually deploying troops overseas.

The Abe administration will certainly suffer some damage from passing the legislation. And we need to remember this is not over yet and it could well suffer more damage. For the first time we have seen the approval and disapproval percentages reversed in multiple Japanese opinion surveys.(Update: Appears that was an understatement – Kyodo reports a 10% drop in support ratings for the Abe cabinet to 37% approval, 51% disapproval, although the Olympic Stadium announcement was not included)

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.

This could lead to either one of a few things. First, the upper house refuses to vote on it and leaves the bill as it is, effectively rejecting the bill. This would force the lower house to pass it with a 2/3rds majority, making for even greater controversy. The other thing that could happen is that the LDP comes to an accommodation with opposition parties, particularly the Japan Innovation Party, and scales back some of the most controversial aspects of the legislation. This would likely mean out of area operations would remain similarly restricted as they are now, although such a bill would still enable the enhancement of US-Japan military cooperation regionally.

The bills may still pass as they are, of course. It really depends on how much political capital Abe wants to spend, and how important it is to him to have the legislation passed in the form it is now.

Extra comment

Abe could twist the arms of LDP-Komeito House of Councillors’ members and have them push through the legislation as it is, or just simply override the HoC. But this will come at a cost. Abe, however, is a particularly determined politician. The obvious choice for any other premier would be to preserve their political capital and come to an accommodation with the moderate elements of the LDP and opposition parties. This would play much better with the public, and Abe could still get a significant amount of what he wants if he so chose to go down this path.

Abe is motivated by various senses of commitment, however.

First, he wishes to see Japan play a greater military role on the global stage, not just regionally, believing that this will enhance Japan’s status among the great powers, and accommodating even his moderate critics would likely undermine the implementation and realisation of this preference. Second, he has to some degree made a rod for his back in promising the US in Congress that he would pass the legislation that he submitted to the Diet. Given how committed Abe is to the alliance, at least symbolically, then he probably feels personally responsible for delivering on the legislation to maintain face.

Third, Abe et al are likely thinking strategically and long-term. There are elements of attempts at なし崩し (chipping away, or in vernacular of security studies, “salami slicing”) about this legislation in the sense that it attempts to not only expand on Japan’s commitments to the US alliance, but also to undermine the operational norms that have restricted even Japan’s post-1970s security policy, such as avoiding the direct use of force and deploying troops to engage in hostilities inside, or occupation of, other nation’s territories (thus becoming a legal belligerent to an international conflict). While it is highly unlikely that the SDF will be doing any of these any time soon, the government has been sufficiently evasive and vague about precisely what the SDF might do in the most extreme scenarios. In responses to questions in parliament, Abe and his ministers have tried to assure the public that is not what the bills are designed to do or permit, but at the same time other responses have suggested that they may not be 100% committed to such assurances. In particular, the government has eschewed using terms like “cannot” or “is not allowed” in reference to continued limitations on SDF overseas activities, in favour of “will not” or “is not in mind.” Clearly this does not completely close off future changes, although even Abe himself has noted on more than one occasion that constitutional revision is now the only option left for further expanding the allowable range of the SDF’s overseas activities.

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