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.

Abe Arrests Deteriorating Support Rate: Still Has Promises to Keep

Please see my introduction to this series. Very Brief “Methodology” Note Here

Find below a brief run down of cabinet support rate data tracked since April 2014 (when the first increment of the consumption tax rise was implemented). Where necessary for the sake of readability, I have split the data from individual polls into two categories – data coming from television organizations in Japan, and those coming from “traditional” print media organizations.

As we can see from the charts below, both television and print organizations recorded an overall downward trend in cabinet approval over the last 5 months, with significant drops from May until and including July being discernible.

Television Organizations – Cabinet Approval



 Print Media Organizations – Cabinet Support



 Combined Average Support



Cabinet approval appears to have stabilized or increased between July and August, however. The exact cause of this is hard to discern as no particular issue or event stood out during August. Perhaps the perception of “safe-driving” after Abe de-emphasized the urgency of security changes subsequent to reading the July polls has been a factor.

The overall average trend, nevertheless, reveals an average drop off in cabinet support of six percentage points from 54 percent to 48 percent during the April-August period.

Of interest is that that in July, after the “collective self-defense” cabinet decision, we saw an average of a 5.15 percentage points drop in cabinet support across all polls in a single month, with that month seeing net support for the cabinet drop by 11.14 percentage points across all polls. The average net support (approval minus disapproval) is tracked by month below. We find a general deterioration in the Abe administration’s “support buffer” from April onwards, with the July results suggesting that it might only be a matter of time until disapproval outweighed approval for Abe Cabinet 2.0. August however, was a relatively good month with all but two polls showing an increase in support and net support, and a stabilising of disapproval (also below). Critical to the Abe administration, particularly after the today’s reveal of Abe Cabinet 2.1, will be whether this August trend can be sustained, or at least net approval maintained at around the current rate. Given the perilous state of the opposition, maintaining the current levels of support will deliver to Abe and the LDP victory in any election, thus ensuring Abe remains safe in his role as LDP president. This could be even more important if the long-standing rumours of a snap election in the coming months come true (see Shisaku here for the most recent incarnation).

Combined Net Support

Combined Average Net Support

Combined Average Disapproval

Combined Average Disapproval August

The Perils of Making and Fulfilling Promises

There are still a number of variables than could collude to  upset or even unseat Abe, despite appearing to have arrested the slow decline of his premiership. Abe and his cabinet have been masterful at putting off these issues and thus not antagonizing the public or important stakeholders and constituencies too much over the last 1.75 years.

There are the issues connected to the nuclear power plant restarts, especially with the Fukushima gubernatorial election coming up. Without the restarts, Abe’s goals of stimulating the economy and/or sustaining the (still unconvincing) initial gains from Abenomics will remain subject to the ever present drag of higher cost energy imports, irrespective of what happens with the promised “third arrow” reforms that are supposed to be forthcoming. Okinawa and Futenma relocation facility tensions loom on the horizon.

The decision over the promised, but very unpopular rise in the consumption tax from 8% to 10% will also need to be negotiated (possibly in the ostensible form of making concessions to Komeito taking the tax off necessities and fresh foods – a bureaucrat’s dream come true of little policy sense).

Abe has also raised the stakes around the Sino-Japanese relationship. Can Abe, by foregoing a Yasukuni visit in August, convince Xi Jinping to meet with him at APEC in November? Is Xi waiting to see what Abe’s domestic position is like around November before deciding one way or another? There would, after all, be no point in meeting with Abe if it looks like the PRC can wait him out. Also important to factor in is that Xi not meeting with Abe could, or I would argue is likely to, precipitate another visit to the Yasukuni shrine in December, with unpredictable political consequences for most, except for the CCP and Xi who will look wise and not unreasonable.


The new year will then bring a final agreement on the re-revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines. This will require the Abe government to implement the promises made to the United States as well as fulfil the expectations raised by the July 1 Cabinet decision. This could still be a fraught process (see forthcoming CPI article. Up now).

The new year will likely also bring the TPP back onto the agenda – if Obama somehow manages to acquire “fast-track” authority from Congress, then it is likely a final deal will be done. The implementation will require another promise to be fulfilled to the US (the credibility of the pivot will be greatly enhanced or undermined by having Japan sign off or not on a TPP agreement, even a “compromised” one) as well as to Abe’s most vigorous domestic backers in the form of the Keidanren and corporate Japan.

Throw in Abe’s most long-standing promise – yes, the one that basically launched his career – to bring home or establish the whereabouts of the remaining DPRK abductees. Success of any substantive kind could be a massive coup for Abe, and may even bolster the Abe administration even if the economy worsens or governing becomes distinctly more difficult as described above. Of course, just writing the words “North Korea” and “Kim Jong-un“, and “strained DPRK-PRC relationship”, should be enough to demonstrate why this is a pretty dubious expectation to rely on for Abe to demonstrate leadership and independent diplomatic strength.

So far the Abe administration has been generally masterful in avoiding the big decisions and not alienating itself too much from its supporters and public sentiment. The question is, how long will they be able to get away with this?


Just How Angry is Xi Jinping Right Now?

MTC has a provocative post up that will almost certainly get him into trouble with a few people in the East Asia studies circuit, but still certainly worth a read. He very validly points out that the DPRK’s most recent launch of a missile-rocket indeed puts US military interests within range of the DPRK’s IRBM (長距離ミサイル for those keeping score), which may in turn change some of the alliance calculus over the next few years. The South Koreans have always been willing to put up with far too much from the DPRK for Japan’s liking, but now with the US being in range at some point then this may alter the balance of concern. Furthermore, it dilutes one of the bargaining chips the US has held over Japan, and has used to get Japan to do things it may have otherwise not been particularly keen on doing (Iraq, withdrawing from the Azadegan oil field in Iran). In theory, over time the North Korean “ballistic missile threat” will be less likely to be utilized as some kind of of quid pro quo in alliance negotiations and should become more of a mutual interest. Cucek also correctly notes that the Chinese will be furious and will once again see their power and influence as not having brought the respect they believe it deserves.

This will hurt the Chinese in other ways than simply pride, however.

First, it gives Japan and the US a useful issue to bash the PRC over the head with in the UNSC, especially if the PRC goes ahead and vetoes any further sanctions. China’s image will deteriorate in Japan further as perceptions have already shifted from it being perceived as a “responsible power” when it first proposed the Six-Party Talks, to it now being perceived as more of an “enabler” of the DPRK and its various military machinations.

Second, given the second stage debris of the missile-rocket landed not a few hundred KMs from the Philippines, then the PRC’s song and dance about the new X-Band Radar proposed for southern Japan and/or the Philippines is going to look all the more hollow. Japan, Taiwan, Australia and the Philippines will be officially less than amused, but may also be very pleased as any further installation of BMD architecture such as the X-Band Radar in southern Japan or the Philippines will in practice, even if not officially, bring greater protection against the PRC’s own MRBMs. Further X-Band Radar installation will also help in enabling the US and Japan naval forces to stand their ground better against the DF-21D “Carrier Killer” within the key strategic triangle of Guam-Tokyo-Taipei. If the Chinese are unwilling to cut the DPRK adrift, or unable to bring them under control, then they have little valid leverage to push back against such plans.

Third, the PRC a few months into the DPRK’s succession had many of the state-associated think tank scholars spread the word regarding the DPRK having turned over a new page, confident that the DPRK would follow the PRC’s lead and pursue Deng Xiaoping-era style reforms.  Apparently the PRC communicated to the other powers in the region that they were not to do anything that would “interfere” with the transition of power to Kim Jong-eun. Essentially this was a warning to respect China’s sphere of influence and to not attempt to put pressure on the DPRK which would destabilize it.  This had led to fears of China potentially “colonizing” North Korea economically, but yesterday’s launch may well represent a rejection of such “guidance” from the PRC, or at the very least an attempt to extract more out of the Chinese in terms of assistance before the almost inevitable threat to detonate a nuclear device rises early next year. It may also reflect a recalibration of internal politics back towards the military, although I have no particular information that would confirm this. Giving in to the DPRK’s demands however, likely in defiance or ignorance of proposed sanctions by the ROK, Japan and the US, will however hurt China’s own regional credibility as well as its own security interests, as per point two above.