Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews an honor guard at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo. (Getty Images)
TOKYO — More political squabbling has stalled Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s quest to ease the ban on Japan’s ability to engage in collective defense, postponing the critical historic Cabinet decision to do so to the fall or beyond.
With his administration bogged down in a slew of other controversial but unavoidable subjects, including riding out a big tax hike and negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement this year, the process of lifting the ban could stretch into 2015.
Abe, a hawk within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who has made lifting the ban a central pillar of his security policy, had hoped his administration would approve the change by the end of the current Diet session ending June 22. Abe also supports reinterpreting Japan’s constitution and revising Japan-US defense cooperation guidelines.
After winning the Diet’s approval to lift the ban, Abe had then hoped by this autumn to push through legislation that would broaden Japan’s Self Defense Forces to allow collective self-defense rights, leading to a revision of US-Japan defense guidelines by December, said Corey Wallace, a Japan security policy expert at New Zealand’s University of Auckland.
But a March 19 decision by coalition partners comprising a lay Buddhist movement and the pacifist-leaning New Komeito Party to further “discuss” the issue means there simply won’t be enough time to reach an agreement this session, pushing everything back by months or beyond as momentum on the issue is lost.
“The December date was the original plan for the release of the revised guidelines,” Wallace said. “The legislation, or some parts of the legislation, will be worked upon during the next parliamentary session, whenever that starts. The longer it takes to get to a consensus position with the Komeito and LDP, then the more possibility Abe’s position might weaken, which could delay things longer.”
This is the second trip around the block for Abe with collective defense. As prime minister in 2007, he made easing the ban a centerpiece of his administration’s policy, only to resign a mere 11 months into his term amid a toxic mix of political gaffes and serious scandals.
This time, Abe thought he had carefully oiled the gears to try to ease through the proposed changes. They attract hot support in only some sections of the generally conservative-leaning LDP, and widespread doubt within the wider Japanese electorate, which is more interested in economic recovery and social security.
Having delivered somewhat of an economic recovery in the year following his December 2012 election victory, Abe then overturned accepted practice and placed Ichiro Komatsu, a former ambassador to France and a known supporter of lifting the ban, in charge of the fiercely independent Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which interprets the constitution. It was a highly controversial move.
Then in October, during the 2-plus-2 consultations between the US and Japan, a commitment to revising the US-Japan defense guidelines was announced. Similarly, Abe handpicked an Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security to deliver recommendations to lift the ban. The panel was due to have reported in April.
With all of his ducks seemingly lined up, everything seemed set until this month, when LDP factions began worrying that Abe was trying to steamroll the process through the party. Then New Komeito effectively slammed on the brakes, citing similar concerns that it had not been consulted fully.
“It’s a useful reminder to those afraid of Japanese militarism that Mr. Abe does not just snap his fingers and get what he wants … and … demonstrates how much inertia — even more than opposition — there is to publicly announced changes in Japan’s defense strategy,” said Grant Newsham, a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, a major defense think tank here.
The proposed change is unpopular within the electorate, which is only lukewarm at best about the move. A nationwide poll conducted in January showed nearly 54 percent of respondents opposed changes to allow collective defense and only 37 percent were in favor, giving even conservatives cold feet. Komeito, backed by the pacifist Sokagakai Buddhist organization, sees its role as reining in the changes.
Meanwhile, if and when things do move forward, Wallace said the Advisory Panel is expected to place five conditions on any exercise of collective self-defense rights. They are:
■ If a country with which Japan has a close relationship is attacked.
■ If Japan does not respond to the contingency, and it has a significant impact on Japan’s security.
■ If Japan has received a request from the country that has been attacked.
■ If the Japanese government receives permission from any third-party countries that the Self Defense Force would traverse in responding.
■ If Japan has Diet permission subsequent to the prime minister making a final decision on whether Japan will invoke the right in the situation at hand.
Such a role is anxiously awaited by the US, which is keen not only for Japan to shoulder more of the US-Japan alliance defense burden, but for basic military capability to help out its partner more in a regional conflict, Newsham said.
“One plausible scenario where Japan Self Defense Force [JSDF] help is needed is a Korean Peninsular contingency. The JSDF can help out with missile and air defense, minesweeping, transport and supply, aerial refueling, and even [evacuation] operations,” Newsham said.
“As long as the US is required to defend Japan, while Japan has no corresponding obligation to help protect US forces, the underlying relationship is precarious — no matter how many times one chants the mantras, ‘Most important bilateral relationship, bar none,’ and ‘the relationship based on shared mutual values has never been stronger,’ ” Newsham said. ■