Shinzo Abe was Japan’s longest-serving and perhaps most important post-war prime minister.
Over a decades-long political career, Abe championed policies that have reshaped Japanese foreign and defense policy to this day.
Abe’s killing on Friday at an event in the city of Nara has prompted the world to reflect on these policies and what they have attempted and actually accomplished for Japan.
He pushed through an economic program called “Abenomics” aimed at reviving Japan’s moribund economy. It had limited success.
Abe proposed the idea of the Quad, a grouping of four like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific to tackle China’s growing weight in the region, and tried to create an expanded role for the military. from the country.
A traditionally pacifist nation, Abe’s ideas have taken on greater prominence in recent months after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Abe tried to change a particular clause in the country’s pacifist constitution, which has been in place since the end of World War II, throughout his two terms as prime minister.
Article 9 states that Japan cannot use war as a means of settling international disputes. But Abe felt that was outdated and would leave Japan vulnerable to neighboring China’s rising military power and an erratic North Korea.
Abe succeeded in pushing through legislation allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside their allies overseas, but his aim to overhaul Article 9 was extremely divisive in Japan and did not never been reached.
The war in Ukraine is now forcing Japan to re-examine its foreign policy and defense policy, including Article 9 of the constitution.
“I think the Russian aggression against Ukraine showed something that was hypothetically possible, but something that many Japanese people didn’t imagine,” said Chikako Kawakatsu Ueki, professor of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute. Waseda University in Tokyo. “And it was an aggression by a very powerful state…against its neighbour.”
Ueki said that has forced many people in Japan to look at their security and defense policy, including military spending, which currently hovers around 1% of GDP.
“People in Japan ask ‘is China another Russia? Is Japan another Ukraine? Is Taiwan another Ukraine?'” she said. “These are the questions… that are forcing Japan to rethink its policy.”
The question of Taiwan occupies an important place in Japanese thought.
In May, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned that the situation in Ukraine could be replicated in Taiwan.
Japan is a close neighbor of the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as its own territory. The fear is that Japan could be dragged into a Chinese military offensive to take Taiwan.
Earlier this year, Abe noted that it was highly likely, given Japan’s proximity and interests in the region, that it would be sucked up militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, saying that “an eventuality in Taiwan is a Japanese possibility”.
Japan’s Defense Ministry predicts a steady increase in Chinese military activity in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
“China is building up its high-speed military capability and is now deploying highly technical equipment on its territory,” said Takeshi Ishikawa, spokesman for Japan’s Defense Ministry.
It’s more than China
Analysts in Japan say the country’s other two neighbors are also an ongoing concern.
North Korea continues to expand its missile and nuclear program, and Russia and Japan have historic territorial disputes. Tensions have risen with Russia in recent months after Japan sided with Western sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine. And Russia and China have continued to grow closer in recent years, such as conducting joint air and sea patrols around Japanese territory.
“So for us, deterrence is important to maintain regional peace and stability,” Ishikawa said, adding that Japan will continue to work closely with the United States.
The United States recently bolstered its naval presence in Japan, sending five new destroyers to its Yokosuka base.
Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo, said the United States had its own interests in deterring China.
“And by the same token, we need the Americans to deter the Chinese because we can’t do it alone,” he said. “So I think the nature of the alliance has intensified and, of course, it’s in the right direction.”
Stricter national security policies
Conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the LDP, want Japan to take a more hands-on approach to national security.
There is more and more talk of creating counterattack capabilities, which would allow them to preemptively destroy incoming missiles. There is also talk of doubling defense spending to 2% of Japanese GDP.
Ueki, of Waseda University, said the public has long opposed such measures, but that is changing.
“The public seems to be more supportive, where they were opposed before,” she said. “But I think it’s a pretty limited offensive capability that Japan is talking about.”
Ueki said Japan needs to be careful that such moves don’t send the wrong signal to “potential aggressors” and that engagement with China is always important. It is, after all, a major trading partner for Japan.
Japan is due to unveil a new national security strategy later this year, the first since 2013, along with a defense strategy and defense procurement budget. The documents will set guidelines for the country’s foreign policy and defense strategies, and could make changes to Article 9.
Hitoshi Tanaka, president of the Institute for International Strategy at the Research Institute of Japan, said Article 9 had been changed over the years. In 2004, Japan deployed self-defense forces to Iraq to help with reconstruction. Its navy participated in refueling missions in the Indian Ocean for American fighter jets in the war in Afghanistan.
Tanaka, a former diplomat, said these missions did not involve actual combat. He said that to do this, the country would have to fundamentally change the constitution.
“I don’t disagree with having a debate about changing the Constitution,” he said. “You just don’t as long as the atmosphere is explosive enough – Ukraine, Russia, China and that kind of stuff. Let’s be quiet. Let’s be cold.”
If Japan’s new national security strategy calls for sweeping changes to the country’s pacifist constitution, it will be a step closer to securing the legacy of the late Prime Minister Abe.