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Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe’s strategic vision


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While most leaders in Western Europe reacted grimly to the result of the 2016 US presidential election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took an unprecedented decision to become the first leader to see President Trump in person only nine days after the election. Since his return to power in 2012, Abe has tried, despite aggressive protests, to reshape the country’s national security policy to permit Japan to have the constitutional right to maintain more powerful defence capabilities. The aim is to build a more independent Japan that is less reliant on the presence of US military force for its national security. With Donald Trump in power, Abe now has the perfect chance to crystallise his strategic vision.

The way has been prepared. In February 2013, Abe reinstated the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, which was suspended when he left office in 2007. In May 2014, the Panel issued a report, suggesting that the interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution should be changed. This Article prohibits the country from using armed force ‘as a means of settling international disputes’, which has been generally interpreted as meaning that Japan is permitted to use military means only in the event of an armed attack against Japan. Abe is seeking to change the definition of self-defence, as well as to permit Japan to participate in collective security measures. As a revisionist — who views Japan’s dependence on US military presence for its national security as humiliation — he wants a mutually cooperative US-Japanese security treaty.

Abe’s premiership, nevertheless, stands for coalition administration and he needs to accommodate the opinion of Komeito, the junior ruling party strongly opposed to revising Article 9. In post-war Japanese politics, pacifistic activists have had great political clout regarding national security and, as of early 2015, the majority of Japanese people were more sympathetic to pacifist thinking than to Abe’s revisionist vision. In light of the political background, Abe did not submit an amendment bill to Article 9, and instead introduced ‘Legislation for Peace and Security’ in May 2015.

While the legislation enables Japan to respond ‘seamlessly to any situation’, there was no change in Japan’s basic policy of an exclusively defence-oriented position. What Abe’s Advisory Panel previously envisaged, such as allowing Japan to have the right to terminate a threat where it is difficult to determine whether an ‘organized and planned use of force’ is being employed, was not included in the legislation. If North Korea launched long-range ballistic missiles across Japanese territory — Kim Jong-Il put this idea into practice in 1998 — it would still not be possible for Japan to react to this type of threat. In September 2015 the legislation was eventually passed through the Diet after a series of heated discussions, and Japan’s national security therefore remains dependent on America’s military presence.

Nevertheless, it is possible, or even probable, that Abe will be able to amend Article 9 thanks to cooperation with Donald Trump. Trump’s policy, particularly towards East Asia, remains uncertain, but it is unlikely that the president will seek to actively exercise US power and military force. Trump’s approach is expected to be something like the so-called ‘offshore-balancing’ policy, as Kori Schake has recently argued in Foreign Affairs. Under this policy the United States would seek a ‘balance’ of power in each region while encouraging its allies to ‘take the lead in checking rising powers’. Although maintaining a strong military power is imperative, the Americans would remain ‘offshore’ and only intervene when strictly necessary. Within this context, it is likely that Trump will be eager to seek Japanese cooperation in stabilising East Asia. Indeed, in the phone conversation between Abe and Trump on 28 January 2017, the two leaders agreed that the close US-Japanese relationship is necessary to counter growing dangers in East Asia, namely the threat from China and North Korea.

It is very likely that Trump will demand that Japan take a more active military role. Trump is of the view that the Japan-US security alliance is unfair and too expensive for the United States. Although the security alliance stipulates that the United States must defend Japan in case of emergencies, as aforementioned, Article 9 prohibits Japan from militarily supporting its allies. In the spring of 2016, Trump thus complained that ‘if Japan gets attacked, we have to immediately go to their aid’, but ‘if we get attacked Japan doesn’t have to help us’. He suggested that Japan should bear more of the financial burden to accommodate its US military presence, or else have US forces withdrawn. He even indicated that Japan should obtain its own nuclear weapons rather than depending on Washington’s commitment.

It therefore seems likely that Trump would  be happy to adopt a concerted approach with Abe to revise Article 9. Two domestic factors strengthen the feasibility of such an attempt. Firstly, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under Abe’s leadership has become more consolidated than ever. Although LDP encompasses pro-Article 9 factions, the influence of those factions is minor. Secondly, the heated debate over national security during the summer of 2015 made more people aware of the volatile political situation in East Asia. While the Mainichi newspaper opinion survey in March 2015 showed that 55 per cent of Japanese people were opposed to the amendment of Article 9, the survey in June 2016 revealed that 52 per cent of people now were, to a greater or lesser extent, ready to support the amendment. In particular, many of Japan’s elites have been worried about the increasing threats posed by China and North Korea. This shift in opinion would considerably buttress Abe’s initiative to amend Article 9. With the advent of Donald Trump as President of the United States, all the elements are in place to support a joint US-Japanese initiative to amend Article 9 and for Japan to take a more pro-active role in East Asia.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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