Abe Calls for (Not Much) More of the Same

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The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aboard a Japanese Coast Guard vessel July 17 in Okinawa.

TOKYO – Fresh off a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last week, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced revisions to Japan’s five-year defense plan Friday that will… not change things much at all.

And for now, at least, that’s good.

The new interim National Defense Program Guidelines call for developing Marine Corps-like capabilities to protect Japan’s southwest islands; improve surveillance and intelligence; boost ballistic missile defenses; and improve coordination among Japan’s three armed forces.

That may sound like a plateful. But it’s essentially a continuation of policies set in motion by Abe’s predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, then-leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Even a vague call to “consider” developing a limited offensive-strike capability – for example, to hit missiles about to be launched at Japanese cities — was accompanied by a pledge from Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera that there would be “no change at all” in security policies that Japan describes as “exclusively defense oriented.”

“Abe wants to put his own color on (the defense guidelines), or release it in his name, but it’s really nothing new,” says Jeffrey Hornung, a Japan and East Asia security specialist at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Though Abe talked tough during his election campaign last year and has proved himself alarmingly tone-deaf on historical issues, he so far has pushed a less aggressive defense agenda than some critics had feared.

He increased defense spending for the first time in a decade, for example — but by a nearly negligible 0.8 percent. He has directed Japan’s Coast Guard to monitor intrusions by Chinese patrol ships into territorial waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea, rather than the heavily armed Maritime Self Defense Force.

“Abe is not as different, in many respects, as he’s trying to make us believe.  He is in many ways carrying on Noda’s policies of increasing southwestern defense and strengthening the alliance with the U.S., strengthening relations with Southeast Asian countries, and reaching out to India and Australia,” Hornung said.

The defense guidelines do not have the force of law, but are intended to help steer policy and budget debates. A final version of the revised guidelines is expected to be released by the end of this year and could differ from the plan released Friday.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party gained a majority of seats in the upper house election on July 21. That gives Abe control of both houses of the Diet and freedom to shape policy and legislation.

But polls show that Abe’s victory was due largely to Abe’s economic policies and perceived incompetence of the opposition. Support for Abe’s defense policies and his plans for amending Japan’s pacifist constitution have been tepid, at best.

Still, the revised guidelines were released amid a growing sense of unease over Japan’s security.  In addition to the standoff around the Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, a flotilla of Chinese warships this week for the first time completed a circumnavigation of Japan’s home islands. At one point, the ships sailed within a few miles of Japan’s coast, though they remained in international waters.

Abe will get another crack at defense policy in the coming weeks if, as expected, he begins the process of revising Japan’s ban on so-called collective self-defense. Under the current interpretation of the constitution – which renounces war as a sovereign right — Japan’s self defense forces are not allowed to fight unless directly attacked.

Abe wants to permit the self-defense forces to come to the aid of U.S. or other allies if they are attacked. And that… would be a change.