Abe’s Defence Policy

Since returning to power Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made defence central to his policy platform. Does this mark a new departure for Japan?

Abe’s Defence Policy: Leveraging The ‘Senkaku Effect’? – Analysis

Since returning to power Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made defence central to his policy platform. To what extent does this mark a new departure for Japan, and how significant are current tensions with China as a driver?

By Euan Graham

JAPAN’S PRIME Minister Shinzo Abe, since returning to power, has made defence central to his policy platform. The ongoing tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute escalated following claims that Chinese warships near the islands “locked on” to a Japanese helicopter and destroyer in separate incidents in January. This latest turn of events has a two-fold impact on Japan’s defence policy.

At one level, it fuels a growing perception that Japan must defend its southern approaches against China’s encroachment, in the worst case including the actual seizure of territory. In this regard, Abe seems to be positioning himself as simply responding to a long-term trend. At the same time, the mobilising appeal of Japanese sovereignty under threat in the Senkaku/Diaoyu has a more instrumental value to his administration as it seeks to re-cast Japan’s domestic debate about defence and the constitution in more nationalistic terms.

Change or continuity?

Upon returning to office after December’s Lower House elections after having served for less than a year as prime minister in 2006-07, Abe was quick to claim that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had charted his course on security policy. There is some basis for this posturing. Although Abe’s conservative leanings have ushered in a more overtly nationalist agenda into the defence debate, especially on reforming the “pacifist” constitution, there is currently more continuity than contest between Japan’s main political parties on defence – a remarkable turnaround from post-war ideological battles over whether Japan should even possess armed forces.

A review of the DPJ’s record on defence reveals substantial overlap with Abe’s current priorities. In 2010, the Ministry of Defence instituted National Defence Programme Guidelines that enshrined the concept of “dynamic defence”, signalling a shift away from Japan’s static cold war dispositions in recognition of a changing security environment.

The key “dynamic” was a slow-brewing concern about China’s strategic intentions and fast-growing maritime and missile capabilities. Defence planners saw a requirement to re-orient the Self Defence Force’s (SDF) posture to guard Japan’s south-western approaches and outlying islands, notwithstanding the overwhelming US military presence on Okinawa. Miyako and Ishigaki islands, further south, were reportedly identified some time ago as potential strategic targets, on the basis that this would give the Chinese navy unfettered access to the Pacific.

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Source: Eurasia Review.

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