Since WWII, Japan has been known as a country oriented towards pacifism, which disavowed war as an instrument of national policy. This may change soon.
On October 22, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scored a major victory in national elections. His Liberal Democratic Party and the Komeito Party, the small coalition partner, together secured at least 312 seats in the 465-seat lower house of parliament, passing the 310-barrier for a two-thirds majority. The elections’ outcome means continuation of the policies pursued since his coming to power in 2012 – a hard line on North Korea and close ties with Washington, especially on defense cooperation. The victory also increases the prime minister’s chances of winning another three-year term next September as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. That could extend his premiership to 2021. Now Abe is on his way to becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II.
The electoral success also gives the PM more time for implementation of his plans to revise Japan's peaceful constitution, which is the prerequisite to increasing Japan’s military capabilities and options. “This was the first election in which we made constitutional change a main pillar of our policy platform,” he said on October 23.
The constitution renounces the use of force in international conflicts, banning the acts of belligerence. While Article 9 technically bans the maintenance of standing armed forces, it has been interpreted by successive Japanese governments to allow the Self-Defence Forces, as the military is known, for exclusively defensive purposes. Historic changes enacted in 2015 expanded that to allow for limited collective self-defense, or aiding an ally under attack.
Any change to Japan's constitution, which has never been amended, requires approval first by two-thirds of both houses of parliament, and then in a public referendum. The Abe’s party and its coalition partner together hold such a majority. With “supermajority” in both houses, the PM has a free hand to push legislation. Changing the constitution will still be an uphill battle as the public is largely opposed to amendment. Currently, Japan’s military spending amounts to about 1% of GDP. It is at the highest level that it has been since 1945. Some legislators are pushing to increase that by another 20%, especially in light of concerns about US commitment to the region.
One of US President Trump’s national-security goals is to push American allies to contribute more toward their own defense. Trump is to visit Japan in early November. About 50,000 US troops are based on Japanese soil, including the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, a sizable Marine contingent and the largest combat wing of the US Air Force. And each year Japan pays $2 billion for hosting them. Tokyo is likely to introduce additional missile defense capabilities such as Aegis Ashore or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems in the near future, given that the LDP has supported additional defense spending for these purposes.
The ruling coalition is debating the need for Japan to deploy its own surface-to-surface missiles to enhance deterrence vis-à-vis North Korea, including the ability to neutralize North Korean ballistic missiles on their launch pads. Japan has so far avoided taking the controversial and costly step of acquiring bombers or weapons such as cruise missiles with enough range to strike other countries, relying instead on its US ally to take the fight to its enemies. But the growing threat posed by North Korea is adding weight to an argument that Japan needs first strike capability.
It appears that Tokyo may be looking to procure Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States. The missiles would be used as standoff retaliatory strike weapons against North Korean missile launchers and launch facilities. The Tomahawks would likely be fielded aboard Japan's Aegis and Mark 41 vertical launch system equipped destroyers. It would mean Japan could attack targets located on the vast majority of world's landmass.
Japan is also very closely examining procuring Aegis Ashore for a fixed, land-based missile defense capability. Aegis Ashore makes use of the same Mark 41 vertical launch system (VLS) that US Navy's surface combatants use to fire the BGM-109 Tomahawk. Just like the US destroyers and cruisers that use the Aegis combat system and its Mark 41 VLS system at sea, Japan could integrate Tomahawk capability into their Aegis Ashore facilities. It proves that Russia’s concern over the Mk-41 capability to launch intermediate range cruise missiles in Europe violating the INF Treaty is justified. If the VLS can do it in Japan, it can do it in Romania or Poland.
After a missile strike, Japan’s forty-two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters could then conduct follow-up strikes to continue to degrade North Korea’s radar network and missile air defenses. Japan could also buy precision air-launched missiles such as Lockheed Martin Corp’s extended-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) or the shorter-range Joint Strike missile
Japan is currently planning to purchase three RQ-4 high-altitude long-endurance drones from the United States. This would allow the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force to conduct multiple search, tracking and bomb-damage assessment operations at once across the length and depth of North Korea or in other areas.
The election victory does not mean that boosting the military potential has wide public support. This was the moment when the opposition was weak with the largest opposition force – the Democratic Party – in disarray. The turnout rate of 53.68 percent – the second lowest in postwar Japan. North Korea serves as a pretext for military plans, which would otherwise have little chance to go through.
The tough stance on North Korea is not the only element of the PM’s foreign policy. The voters evidently backed his policy of engagement with China. The policy on Russia is widely supported. Since his coming to power, the PM has been implementing the policy of rapprochement with Russia. During his official visit to Moscow in April, 2013, Russia and Japan inked a joint statement to launch multilateral cooperation, including “2+2” format regular meetings of foreign and defense ministers for consultations.
Russia and Japan hold regular summits. At the Sochi summit in May, 2016, Abe announced his “New approach” to ties with Russia. During the September, 2017, meeting at the Eastern Economic Forum, the leaders discussed the issue of the Kuril Islands. Russian President Putin will meet Shinzo Abe at the November 2017, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam. Further improvement of Russia-Japan relations is a staple of Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy that receives voters’ support to strengthen the PM’s position before the election he so spectacularly won.