The Washington Quarterly: “Japan’s Defense Policy: Abe the Evolutionary”

Far from constituting an abrupt transformation of Japan’s defense policy, recent measures adopted during the Abe era to large extent continue long-term trends initiated by previous governments from both his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). They reflect a significant, but evolutionary, rationalization of defense policy driven by growing concerns about regional security because of perceived threats from North Korea’s increasingly advanced nuclear and missile programs, a shifting regional military balance, and China’s maritime advancement and efforts to assert its sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas. Other important factors include lessons learned from two decades of the Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) gradually expanding regional and global missions and a desire to maximize efficiencies in response to the changing nature and rising costs of military technology, fiscal constraints, a shrinking and aging population, and the Japanese public’s persistent, deep-seated skepticism about military power. In response to these challenges, Abe and his predecessors have pursued incremental changes to bolster deterrence, to deepen cooperation and interoperability with the United States as well as other partners, and to facilitate a more rapid, flexible, and effective response to a range of perceived traditional and non-traditional security threats.
Furthermore, a flawed yet widespread focus exclusively on changes to Japan’s security policy overlooks the persistence of strict, long-standing, and self-imposed constraints within which political leaders pursue these reforms. Rumors of their demise to the contrary, recent developments have stretched, but not removed, core principles that for decades have defined Japan’s self-restraint. As cases-in-point, political leaders still prohibit the JSDF from using military force outside a singular, narrow interpretation of self-defense, or developing—much less employing—offensive power projection or nuclear weapons. Though practically significant and historic in a Japanese context, recent reforms—up to and including collective self-defense—are, at most, reactive realism within strict normative bounds. Seventy years after Japan’s surrender, the public remains deeply skeptical about the employment of military power as a tool of foreign policy.
Recent developments have stretched, but not removed, Japan’s core principles of self-restraint.

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