Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Abe's mandate: The strategic dimension

Abe's mandate: The strategic dimension

As discussed in part 1 of this post, Prime Minister Abe is likely to make the economy his first post-election priority. He wants to pull the economy out of recession and set the basis for long-term growth.

But he cannot ignore national security. Abe's own deep interest, allied with that of a significant section of his support base, will drive the strengthening of national security policy.  This has at its core further strengthening the security alliance with the US and other close partners such as Australia, in the face of China's rise.

The newly elected Diet would need to approve legislation to amend the Self-Defence Law and the Japan Coast Guard Law to provide the necessary legislative basis for the Abe Cabinet's decision of July 1 2014 to reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. That reinterpretation allows Japan's self-defence forces for the first time since the end of the Second World War to engage in collective self defence, albeit under strictly limited circumstances.

The reinterpretation of Article 9 remains opposed by a significant majority of the Japanese electorate, according to opinion polls. However, on the basis of his huge election victory Abe is likely to press ahead in the Diet to pursue amendments necessary to allow implementation of the Cabinet's July 1 2014 reinterpretation.* [fold]

Abe will need to persuade his key coalition partner Komeito, a Buddhist-based peace party, to acquiesce in his agenda. This will be a difficult task. The legislative process will demand judicious political management. Abe cannot afford to spend an excessive amount of his newly defended political capital on this national security matter. He must carry the electorate with him as he prosecutes the structural reform agenda under the Abenomics 'third arrow'.

With domestic issues a priority, Prime Minister Abe is unlikely to change his approach to international issues. He has engaged more actively than any other recent Japanese prime minister in regional and international diplomacy. He is keen to highlight Japan's significant contributions to the region and in international cooperation, and to achieve recognition of its leading global role. Relations with Australia are a key element in Abe's style of more activist diplomacy

Japan's relations with China remain delicate and demand careful handling. Prior to the election, at the APEC summit in Beijing, Abe and China's President Xi Jinping held the first high level meeting between the leaders of the two countries in two years. Long overdue, this cautious beginning of a thaw in the tense relations between the two countries is welcome. The ongoing disagreements over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have unnerved the region as well as seriously dividing, at a political and community level, these two countries that are so deeply integrated at an economic level

The accommodation reached at the summit meeting about how to express the position of the respective sides on the issue of sovereignty of these islands effectively parked the issue. Providing further disputes between the two sides do not emerge, reviving reasons to aggravate tensions, a quiet non-confrontation policy of 'leave well alone for now' can continue.

Prime Minister Abe will continue to face demands from those in his party keen to assert nationalistic perspectives, but is likely to maintain the new status quo agreed upon at the APEC summit meeting as long as he can. His landslide mandate, from an electorate which has a strong pacifist streak, will help him. China's more careful handling of relations with Japan, together with the strategic support Japan enjoys with regional neighbours, none of whom want to see aggressive tactics as part of Japan-China relations, will all assist Abe's management of a changing Japan.

*Note the possibility that the Australian Government may choose Japanese submarine technology for its next generation submarine fleet is not directly affected by the degree of progress Prime Minister Abe makes in the Diet on the passing of legislation to give effect to the reinterpretation of Article 9. However, if such a decision is made by the Australian Government, then the matter may be caught up in the Diet debate on the issues relating to the reinterpretation of Article 9.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Navy Page.

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