Abe’s military plans

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Abe’s military plans

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The victory of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party in the Upper House elections has created much speculation about the direction in which Japan will now go. A rejuvenated reincarnation of his 2006 self, Abe now has several years before his next election, 70 percent approval ratings and control of both houses of his legislature. There are not many leaders in the world today in as strong a political position. The burning question is: What will Abe do with all of his political capital? Will he push to the right on historical issues like Yasukuni shrine visits or a denial of Japan’s past wartime atrocities such as the recruitment of comfort women?

Contrary to many, I think not. While there will be misstatements by LDP politicians or others in Abe’s circle on history issues, I think the prime minister has been somewhat careful in his own statements and actions and will continue to be so. This was certainly the case when he was a weak prime minister in 2006, when he easily could have succumbed to playing the history card to gain support, but did not. Instead, Abe did not visit Yasukuni shrine as prime minister and worked hard instead to engineer summit meetings with China’s President Hu in a successful effort to end Beijing’s boycott of meetings with Abe’s predecessor. As a strong prime minister, no such temptation should exist, nor should domestic pressure work.

Abe has much bigger issues on his plate that will require expenditure of the political capital he has amassed. Most importantly, the primary agenda item will remain economic recovery. In this regard, Abe will undertake two major measures - a consumption tax hike and regulatory reform. Neither will be easy.

The consumption or sales tax is the most immediate issue. It is scheduled to rise to 8 percent next April and then to 10 percent in 2015. The current rate is 5 percent, the lowest among OECD countries. The Kantei is concerned that these increases could hamper recent growth in the Japanese economy, which has been based on heavy government spending and monetary easing - so-called “Abenomics.” , At the same time, Abe’s premiership rests on his ability to reverse 15 years of deflation. The prime minister framed the dilemma well last week when he said he wants to follow through on the tax increases because they would assure world markets that Japan is serious about fiscal reform.

At the same time, he does not want to slow the growth that Japan has enjoyed under his leadership. With difficult problems like this, there is little time or political space to undertake measures on history issues that are certain to meet with widespread criticism from regional neighbors like Korea and China, and even some quiet criticism from trusted partners like the United States.

Abe’s other policy priority will be national defense. A recently released defense paper - an interim report based on a wider review to be completed by December at the request of the prime minister - suggests the areas the Japanese will prioritize. These are enhanced naval capabilities, surveillance drones, missile defense and autonomous strike capabilities. These defense upgrades all will take place in the context of a wider interpretation of Japan’s right to collective self-defense. What Tokyo seeks with these priorities is an ability to deploy forces rapidly to islands that may be under threat (presumably from China). They also seek the intelligence capacity to detect potentially hostile activity as early as possible and to respond to missile threats (presumably from North Korea).

How should Korea respond to this latter development? The natural historically inspired action would be to oppose it, to criticize it, to claim that Abe’s resurgent nationalism is a threat. This would not be advisable. The enhancement of Japan’s missile defense capabilities would be good for the U.S.-Japan alliance’s defense against North Korean missiles, which, in turn, would be good for South Korea. The bases, airports, and ports on the Japanese archipelago serve as critical rear support areas for the U.S.-ROK alliance. If Japan is better able to protect these facilities, this is good for Korea.

The better response would be to request that Japan and the United States engage in trilateral consultation with Seoul on Japan’s evolving defense plans. Rather than sit on the outside and criticize the process, it is better to be on the inside, possibly helping to shape the process. Under most other circumstances, this consultation could take place bilaterally between Seoul and Tokyo, but given the current poor state of relations it might be easier to do this trilaterally with Washington. Consultations can take place at the official government level, but also at the track 1.5 level in order to allow for maximum discussion and not just the formal exchange of official talking points.

As part of this process, the Japanese prime minister should appoint a special envoy, whose main responsibility would be to demonstrate Tokyo’s close consultation and dialogue with Seoul as it undertakes these changes to its national defense. Seoul should welcome, not reject, such an envoy from Japan.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

by Victor Cha

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