As Japan’s establishment and observers start to come to grips with the implications of a Trump administration for the country, one comment I’ve heard a lot is that this is a gift for Shinzo Abe and his inner circle. It clears the way for them to enact their long dreamed-of reforms, which would upend the post-war national order and return the country to a normalised military posture. Certainly, the almost certain cancellation of TPP is a blow to Abenomics, but in this view of events, Trump’s foreign policy stance is a huge boost for Abe’s militaristic agenda.
In one respect, that’s right. Trump’s election and the huge question mark it places over the stability and reliability of the 64 year old US-Japan security alliance does make Japan’s military normalisation vastly more probable. Even if the Trump administration does not, as seems very likely, demand an enormous increase in Japan’s financial contribution to the US military presence here (notably, Japan already pays a very large proportion of the US’ base costs) and talk down the nature of its commitment to the alliance, the unprecedented uncertainty his presidency introduces to the alliance will sway opinon among Japan’s political establishment and public alike. More significant military budget increases (not the small, conservative increases seen thus far) are almost inevitable; reform of Article 9 of the constitution, which looked all but impossible last week, may now be within the LDP’s grasp.
To call this a “gift” to the Abe administration, however, is a misreading of the reality. The Japanese government is not acting like the recipient of a long-desired gift; rather, it’s scrambling desperately to shore up and guarantee a continuation of the status quo. Abe was among the first leaders to speak to President-Elect Trump after his victory, not because he likes Trump’s positions but rather because Trump’s statements on Japan imply an uncertain and hence dangerous future for the East Asian order. Abe will also be one of the first world leaders to visit Trump and speak face to face with him in New York. In short, Abe and his officials are pulling out every stop and calling in every favour to ensure that this “gift” doesn’t actually materialise.
Why? Simply put, the LDP’s pursuit of remilitarisation and Article 9 reform has been the political equivalent of a dog chasing cars. It’s very fun and you get to make a whole lot of noise, but what on earth is a dog to do if one day it actually catches a car? It’s big, scary, hard and intimidating; the dog hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with it, and for all its chasing and barking, has never actually sat back on its hindquarters to come up with a plan of action for after the car is caught.
The LDP is a dog that just caught a car. Remilitarisation and the upending of the postwar order in Japan has been an issue that the LDP, and especially its more regressive wing (including Abe and much of his inner circle) has enjoyed harping on about for decades. Seriously, for all the talk of Japan’s right-wing shift or Abe’s nationalism, there’s nothing new under the rising sun; LDP leaders as far back as Nakasone in the early 1980s constantly banged on the same populist drum, and it was Koizumi back in 2001, not Abe, who reignited the whole mess around Yasukuni Shrine. Talking up military normalisation, making small, gradual changes (a peacekeeping operation here, a reinterpretation of legal advice there) to the existing order and muttering loudly about “masochistic” accounts of history or “correcting” other countries’ viewpoints is red meat for a certain portion of the LDP base. It’s a strand of populist rhetoric that has been a part of the LDP’s messaging since Nakasone, but in a relatively low-key way; the LDP knows that most of the Japanese electorate supports the constitution, dislikes the idea of overseas military engagements, rather likes the postwar order and will only tolerate this kind of populist rhetoric as long as it’s seen, broadly, as harmless letting off of steam by slightly daft nationalists.
The result is that for all the talk, all the noise and the chest-beating, there is no plan in place for Japan to take independent control of its national security. There is no plan for full normalisation of the Japan Self-Defence Forces into an actual national military. There is no roadmap for any of this. There isn’t even a coherent plan for reforming the constitution; the much-vaunted “ideal constitution” drafted by LDP right-wingers and posted online some years ago is a fever-dream of return to a dimly imagined glorious past that none of its authors ever imagined actually putting into practice. As for the JSDF, it is an impressive military force in its own right – extremely well-trained, well-organised and by far the most technologically advanced military force in Asia – but it’s designed to function in concert with the US military, fulfiling very specific roles alongside the much more capable and flexible US forces. Upgrading, repurposing and realigning the JSDF into a military capable of independent operation is an enormous undertaking – expensive, difficult and time-consuming.
That’s the car the LDP has been chasing, and has just caught. The most extreme (and thankfully unlikely) version of what happens next sees President Trump fulfil his most hardline electoral promise – vacating the US’ bases in Japan and pulling back US forces from East Asia generally. While the JSDF is a competent and well-equipped force, it is in no position to fill that vacuum; even on something as simple and vital as missile defence, Japan’s advanced AEGIS destroyer fleet relies upon the presence of US vessels to fill gaps in the shield through which a North Korean missile might slip, and the timescale for achieving operational independence in that regard alone is on the order of many years. A less extreme (and arguably the most likely) version sees the US remaining in Japan, but demanding more financial support for its presence, and appearing less robust in its commitment to defend Japan’s extremities – including sort-of contested (in a “China making up flat-out nonsense” sense that has become wearily familiar across Asia of late) territories like the Senkaku Islands. While that would reduce some pressure, ensuring that the US military would remain involved in Japan’s security, it will still demand essentially the same long-term response from the Japanese Govermment. If there is even the slightest doubt in the US’ willingness to defend Japan from attack, Japan has an absolute requirement to shift the posture of the JSDF – constitutionally, legally, technologically and strategically – to that of a normalised military capable of independent functioning.
Abe and his inner circle don’t want to do that. Sure, they’d like that to happen, but the passive voice is important here; it’d be great if someone else just went and did it overnight with a sprinkling of magical fairy dust, but the daunting, years-long project of turning around Japan’s strongly opposed public opinon, its constitution and legal system, its military stance and its governing institutions to allow such a change is a minefield the LDP never really planned on actually walking into.
That’s why Abe was so quick to lift the phone to President-Elect Trump, and why he’s been so quick to arrange to meet him in New York. The opportunity to reform Article 9 has never been greater, but that’s a distant second in Japan’s priorities right now; its most pressing and urgent priority is to head off the disaster that would be the US backing off even slightly from its commitment to the US-Japan alliance. Constitutional reform and military realignment is on the table, but it’s no gift; nobody in the LDP with any clarity of outlook is smiling at the prospect right now. Maintaining the status quo as much as possible will be the number one priority of Abe, his administation and any of his possible successors for the duration of the Trump presidency.