Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has won a majority in the upper house to give him control of both houses of parliament for the first time in six years. He came to power last December promising to get the country out of 20 years of economic recession – stagnation period. He launched a stimulus plan designed to spur economy and it appears to be working. Since his coalition government came to power, the economy has grown by 4% and the stock market by more than 40%. There are structural reforms ahead like, for instance, raising taxes and opening the country to more competition. Trade barriers need to come down, taxes will need to rise and large parts of the economy will have to be deregulated. These are decisive steps to take and one needs general public support to do so. The just-held election victory opens the way for the implementation of what Mr. Abe finds imperative to put the country back on track. The opposition in the upper house cannot stand in his way anymore. It’s the period of stability for the ruling coalition, which now enjoys freedom of action. Many raise the question what the government will do next to promote the country’s international standing which is an announced goal of the policy raising alarm among Japan’s Asia-Pacific partners and worldwide as well.
Foreign policy goals and military build-up
The Abe administration is openly seeking to amend the Constitution, which puts breaks on military build-up, and to upgrade the SDF (Self-Defense Force) to a full-scale national defense military. According to Abe and like-minded LDP members, Article 9 stands in the way of Japan being a ‘truly sovereign’ country, as it strictly prohibits the county from maintaining armed forces (which is why Japan’s military is referred to as the ‘Self-Defence Forces’). Of course, the war-renouncing clause does not prevent Japan from spending almost $50 billion per year on its state-of-the art military. Moreover, Abe also plans to change the interpretation of Article 9 that prevents the country from exercising the right to collective self-defense as formulated in Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Allowing itself the right to collective self-defense would, e.g., authorize Japan’s armed forces to fight alongside the US military in the event of a regional conflict.
The Abe’s government, which took office in December, decided to freeze the current defense policy the following month and formulate a new one by the end of this year. In a month after he came to office, Japan pushed up annual military spending by 0.8 percent to $51.7 billion. It was raised for the first time in 11 years. The new military budget adds weapons that just a decade or two ago would have seemed overly offensive for Japan’s defensive forces, like two US-made F-35 stealth fighter-bombers, for instance.
The Prime Minister takes advantage of the fact that he took office against the background of Japan facing tensions with its neighbors in particular: with China over sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, administered by Tokyo, in the East China Sea; with South Korea over the Takeshima islets, administered by Seoul, in the Sea of Japan; and with North Korea over its ambitions to acquire ballistic missile capability. By and large the policy to revive military might is supported across the Japanese political spectrum. In the course of last year’s elections, all the major parties called for the defence of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as part of Japan’s territory.
Eager to boost its capabilities to defend remote islands, the SDF participated in June for the first time in Dawn Blitz 2013, an amphibious combat exercise Dawn Blitz with the U.S. military on California’s southern coast. During the two-week drills one thousand members of the Self-Defense Forces have been learning how to recapture territory in the face of enemy fire. The Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel launched a hovercraft that carried personnel and heavy weaponry onto a beach to enable elite rangers practice a nighttime beach infiltration. For the first time, they were joined by warships from the Maritime Self Defense Forces and brought along their own helicopters and landing craft
The exercises reflect the Liberal Democratic Party’s interest in developing a robust amphibious force. With the LDP sweeping the Upper House election on July 21, Abe now has a majority in both Diet chambers to push through the corresponding legislation.
On July 9, 2013, the Ministry of Defence of Japan released its Annual White Paper 2013 (AWP-2013).. It stresses that the issues and destabilizing factors in Japan’s security environment listing North Korea as the most serious challenge. There are two new areas under discussion that could significantly change the nature of the role of the Japanese military – developing the ability to launch preemptive attacks on enemy bases abroad by acquiring pre-emptive strike capability and the creation of an amphibious force similar to the US Marine Corps. The paper also suggests Japanese forces should have the capability to attack enemy bases as an effective deterrent against ballistic missile threats. That was in response to North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs, as indicated by defense minister Onodera. «The reality of the current international community suggests that it is not necessarily possible to prevent invasions from the outside by only nonmilitary means such as diplomatic efforts, and in the event that the nation was to be invaded it would not be able to remove such a threat…. For this reason, Japan is striving to develop proper defense capabilities to protect the lives and assets of the public and to defend the territorial land, sea and airspace of Japan», the report says. The AWP-2013 has already been criticized by China and South Korea. Beijing responded immediately by accusing Tokyo of making unfounded accusations against China. The tensions between Japan and China have escalated since September 2012 over a long-standing dispute over small islands (known as Senkaku in Japanese and Daoiyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea controlled by Tokyo. The South Korean government protests the Japanese government’s unjust territorial claims over a rocky outcrop, held by South Korea, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese. South Korea’s foreign affairs ministry said «Japan's incorrect view of history deserves to be solemnly criticized». It further said, all these will unlikely ease ongoing tensions in the region whose stagnant economic growth could further fuel nationalist rhetoric from all sides.
The New National Defense Program Guidelines, which set policy and spending goals over a five-year period, are expected to be finalized in December after being deliberated by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner New Komeito.
Japan also plans to establish a new National Security Council that would streamline how and when Tokyo would use military force, appoint a senior officer to command troops from all three armed services, and formally designate a Marine Corps-like force to defend its vulnerable southwest islands. The new four-member council would be led by a new national security advisor who would operate with a full-time staff. Defense officials also are expected to announce this month the creation of a new post of joint forces commander. The position envisions the authority over troops from all three self-defense forces during contingency operations. The new joint commander would have authority to make cross-service decisions in the field avoiding a clumsy and time consuming process of going to the Joint Staff Office in Tokyo.
Strengthening the alliance with the USA is central to the Japan’s foreign and defense policy. In April 2012 the US and Japan signed a bilateral defense-cooperation agreement. It calls for strengthening interoperability between U.S. and Japanese forces and building permanent training facilities on Guam and in the nearby Northern Mariana Islands. Last August the U.S. and Japanese governments signed an agreement to deploy drones to monitor Chinese activity in the East China Sea. Last September Tokyo and Washington agreed to deploy a second major advanced missile defense radar on Japanese territory. With another planned to be placed in the Philippines, it will greatly enhance the capability to track ballistic missiles launched from North Korea and large parts of China. Japan has emerged as the most important U.S. partner in crafting a layered shield against ballistic missiles of all ranges. Tokyo was seeking a potential $421 million sea-based Aegis aid defense system upgrade for two guided-missile destroyers to fend off ballistic missile attacks. The US fifth-generation aircraft F-35 has already been selected to replace aging F-4s as its next mainstay fighter, a deal valued at more than $5 billion.
Shinzo Abe traveled to Moscow April 29 for a state visit, the first such visit by a Japanese head of state in a decade. In many ways, the recent summit can be seen as not just an important meeting but even as a landmark event in the history of Russo-Japanese relations. Against the backdrop of rising tensions in the region, especially on the Korean peninsula, Russia and Japan came to a mutual understanding of the need to strengthen the political component of their relationship. During the summit, the leaders agreed to order their foreign ministries to «accelerate talks in order to find a mutually acceptable decision» over the decades long Kuril Islands dispute. Tokyo has demanded that Moscow recognize Japan as the rightful owner of the South Kurils. Moscow maintains the issue is not negotiable. «Russia believes that despite the complexity of the problem the dialogue should be aimed at finding the mutually acceptable solution and be held in a calm and respectful atmosphere», the Kremlin said ahead of the visit. A peace treaty with Japan is still a distant, though feasible, prospect, but improvement in cooperation on energy, trade and investment is quite possible today. Abe expressed hopes that his visit to Moscow will mark «the first stage of economic diplomacy» that would make economic cooperation the centerpiece of bilateral relations. Japan is the second largest trading partner of Russia in Asia after China, with an increase in turnover of 5.3 percent in the last year to 32 billion dollars. The total accumulated investment from Japan to the Russian economy at the end of last year amounted to 10.7 billion dollars. The strategic scope of cooperation is the fuel and energy complex. Considering the strategy of phasing out nuclear power, Japan is searching for new traditional sources of energy. Russia, on its part, needs billions of dollars of investments to fund development projects of the Far East with its ample resources. Japan was informed that Gazprom is ready to take part in the construction of a terminal in Japan for liquefied natural gas and gas distribution networks. The plant, with a capacity of 15 million tons per year, will be built on the Pacific coast of Japan by the Russian Federation, and, according to the plans of Gazprom, launched in 2018. President Putin stressed that Russia was hoping to increase the number of mutually beneficial projects that will be supported by a new mutual fund – Russian-Japanese investment platform with a total capital of $1 billion. The trade turnover between Russia and Japan in 2012 reached $32 billion, a 5.3-percent increase over 2011. In January and February of 2013, Russia-Japan trade turnover totaled $4.3 billion, a 6 percent increase over the same period in 2012.
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While the world attention is diverted to the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific is becoming a volatile region with uncertain security prospects. Trends and obvious aspiration for economic cooperation mix up with rising tensions around flashpoints. Japan has an important role to determine the regional policies, the question is will be able to combine economic expediency with the revision of law to enable unrestricted military build-up and becoming a leading instrument in implementing the US announced Asia pivot. The country is still facing economic hardships; it’s far from being fully back on track. Are the growing military expenditure and hawkish US-dictated foreign policy the things the Japanese grassroots aspire for – that is the question.