In an attempt to curb China's hegemonic ambitions, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe is set on strengthening his country's security ties with the United States. But the new approach is poisoning the political climate at home.
This week all eyes in East Asia are set on Joe Biden. On Tuesday, December 2, the US vice president is set to meet with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Tokyo to discuss about how to deal with China's newly declared air defense zone, before traveling to Beijing and Seoul for similar talks. Each of Biden's statements in the Japanese capital will be closely monitored, as Japan fears its sole security partner - the United States - might deviate from its own hard line.
The State Department recently unnerved Tokyo when it advised US commercial airlines to notify Chinese authorities of flight plans when traveling through the new air defense zone. The zone covers an area which includes the disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
All Nippon Air and Japan Airlines are currently following a request from the Japanese government not to submit flight plans to China for any planes due to fly over that area. Washington reaffirmed, however, that it was not acknowledging China's new air defense zone.
A new interpretation
The escalation in the East China Sea essentially plays into the hands of Premier Abe. Despite pacifist resistance, the nationalist politician is set on strengthening Japan's defenses. Politically, this is set to happen through the Constitution. However, since Abe lacks a majority, the Premier is apparently no longer planning to change the Constitution directly, but rather to reinterpret its Article 9. The pacifism clause in the article forbids Japan from waging war, unless the country is under attack.
The new interpretation is designed to allow Japanese troops to actively defend their ally, the United States. Following China's foray into the East China Sea, Abe's goal of loosening the limits of Japan's pacifist constitution could meet with more approval from the population.
At the same time, Japan is preparing to react militarily to China's growing hegemonic ambitions. The details are scheduled to be announced by the end of the year, but the essential features are already becoming apparent. First of all, the country wants to spend more on defense, despite its soaring national debt. After a 0.7 percent hike this year, Japan's Defense Ministry is seeking a further three percent rise in defense spending for the coming year, thus increasing the military budget to a total of 50 billion USD (some 37 billion euros).
Secondly, the government wants to invest more in the country's air, missile and coastal defense. In return, the number of tanks is expected to shrink within the next decade by 60 percent to 300.
The bulk of the tanks are to be deployed on the islands of Kyushu and Hokkaido, on the outer edges of the country. A security cooperation with Russia is set to take some pressure off Japan's northern flank, and allow Japanese defenses to focus on a potential Chinese threat coming from the South.
With its new defense strategy, Japan's conservative government wants to make a name for itself as a reliable US partner on an equal footing. For this same reason, Premier Abe recently created a national security council based on the US model, where all relevant pieces of information converge. This way, Abe argues, Japan is able to react faster to developments regarding foreign and security policy.
A controversial bill
The US might also take its junior partner more seriously now that Abe's ruling coalition pushed a controversial state secrets bill through the lower house of parliament.
In Japan, classified information is leaked to the public so fast that US diplomats and military personnel normally share only few documents with their Japanese allies. Japan is viewed as a "paradise for spies."
Lengthy prison sentences in Japan are now set to deter whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden. But at the same time, the new measures are increasing political tensions. The "secrecy protection" bill essentially limits contacts between journalists and government officials. The bill speaks only of "certain" security-relevant secrets and fails to specify what kind of secrets it refers to.
Furthermore, there seems to be no clear parliamentary oversight. Rights activists and journalists therefore warn that Japan might be turning into a police state and relapsing into the nationalism of the 1930s.
Protets as 'acts of terrorism'
Critics say they fear that the government might classify information regarding, for instance, nuclear accidents like the one in Fukushima, as secret. Premier Abe has indicated that he is willing to react to criticism before the upper house of parliament votes on the bill later this week. Thus far, Abe has refused to accept any changes. But as the current parliamentary term ends this Friday, December 6, Abe apparently fears that his bill might fail.
But the political climate in Japan is already poisoned. In his blog, the Secretary General of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Shigeru Ishiba, recently labeled the protests against the bill as "acts of terrorism." He later softened his statement by saying he was referring to the "noise" made by the demonstrators. But the opposition now feels its suspicions have been reinforced that Abe wants to curtail fundamental democratic freedoms.
Mizuho Fukushima, deputy chief of Japan's Social Democratic Party (SDP) recently said one could not trust a government with members such as Ishiba.