Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is generally credited with improving and intensifying bilateral relations with the US, especially on security matters. In 2014 he moved to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution that bars Japan from waging war and maintaining military forces. In doing so, he overturned his own Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) longstanding position against exercising the right of collective self- defense. In 2015 he agreed to new US-Japan Defense Guidelines that greatly expand Japan’s commitment to provide military support to the US in the event of conflict. Later that summer Abe passed controversial legislation in the Japanese Diet that provided the legal basis for Tokyo to engage in collective self-defense and deliver on what he already promised to Washington in the guidelines.
The Japanese public, however, remains leery about what Abe branded ‘proactive pacifism’, and concerned that under some dubious pretext Japan will be dragged into conflict at Washington’s behest. As a result, the so-called Abe doctrine of a more assertive security posture on paper confronts the political reality of strong public opposition to Japan actually doing what it promised. For example, Abe ducked President Trump’s request in early 2020 that Japan join a US-led coalition naval patrol of the Strait of Hormuz in response to attacks on vessels operating there, including a Japanese owned ship.
Instead, Abe dispatched a single destroyer to a safer area in the Gulf of Oman on an intelligence gathering operation, fearful that joining the coalition operation would undermine Tokyo’s good relations with Tehran. He also worried about a domestic public backlash that might endanger his plan to revise the constitution, highlighting the continued limits on what even a relatively popular leader can manage. Abe’s modest gesture of solidarity was less than Washington hoped for and a reality check on how much Japan can deliver and what the US can expect. In that sense, the 2015 guidelines could spark mutual recriminations that might undermine the alliance rather than strengthen it.
The Japanese government’s failure in 2020 to get any town to agree to host Aegis Ashore, a ballistic missile defense system, is yet another troubling sign that public support for Abe’s proactive pacifism is lacking.
There is a wide perception gap between policymakers in Washington and Tokyo who believe it is imperative to respond to the risks of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s hegemonic ambitions, and a Japanese public that still puts faith in the pacifist norms that have prevailed in post-WWII Japan.
Essentially, towns did not welcome the Aegis Ashore because they think it is more likely to attract an attack than repel one. Okinawans have long held similar misgivings about the US bases, seeing them as targets rather than shields. They also resent that they shoulder a disproportionate base hosting burden as about half of the US military is stationed there, occupying some 18% of the land area. Abe invested significant political capital in backing an unpopular plan to relocate the US Marine Air Station Futenma from crowded Ginowan City to Henoko where construction is proceeding on construction of a V-shaped runway in the adjacent Oura Bay. There are widespread concerns about environmental damage and now the government concedes that the seabed is unsuitable because it has the consistency of mayonnaise, meaning further delays and higher costs for a project of doubtful value.
In a 2019 referendum, just over 70% of islanders voted against the Henoko base project, but Abe was unfazed by this overwhelming opposition because his main concern is keeping the US engaged.
He has done more than all of his predecessors combined to deliver on the Pentagon’s alliance wish list because Japan is vulnerable and needs the US security umbrella more than ever. Thus, he has increased defense spending, purchased more US military hardware and technology, while shrugging off constitutional constraints to strengthen the alliance.
President Donald Trump has upped the ante, demanding that Japan quadruple its annual host nation support to US$ 8 billion. Tokyo has slow walked negotiations, perhaps in the hope that Trump will lose the election. If he should win, however, Kenneth Weinstein, Trump’s nominee as the next US Ambassador to Japan, submitted written testimony to the Senate in August indicating he wants Japan to take on a bigger alliance role, financially and militarily.
The US has long called for increased burden sharing, but unlike his predecessors, Trump relishes playing hardball, so in the event he is re-elected Tokyo will have to pay more for the bases and face heightened pressure to do more militarily. There are also thorny negotiations ahead on trade that will chip away at the bilateral goodwill necessary for broader cooperation.
Abe managed to get Trump’s backing for his vision of a Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) that involves the security Quad of the US, Japan, Australia and India aimed at containing China. There have been a series of joint naval exercises, but this nascent security cooperation remains very far from a NATO-like organization and nations in the region remain leery of emulating that model. US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun backs the Quad evolving into a NATO-like formal alliance, but other Asian nations are unenthusiastic about building an anti-China military bloc in the Indo-Pacific. Southeast Asian nations may welcome US-Japan alliance pressure on China to respect international law and norms, and are anxious about its hegemonic ambitions, but prefer to dampen US-China strategic competition rather than escalate the confrontation. Prominent regional scholars spoke out against Abe’s recent proposal for Japan to develop a preemptive strike capability against overseas missile sites and called on Tokyo to refrain from militarily aggressive behavior.
In their view, a Biden victory would give Japan more room to cooperate with the US to take on a constructive regional role in addressing urgent common challenges such as economic cooperation, free trade and climate change rather than sabre rattling against China.
Under Trump, the US has become a more erratic and unreliable alliance partner forcing Abe to broaden Japan’s network of security partnerships. Abe has also worked to improve relations with China, but this has not had the desired impact on tensions in the East China Sea where China intruded in the territorial waters of the Senkaku islets claimed by Japan for 111 days in a row between April and August 2020.
Abe’s has left his successor Suga Yoshihide much unfinished business and a mixed legacy of foreign policy achievements and failures. Relations with South Korea have unraveled, a major concern among Washington wonks who want these US allies to get over their shared past and cooperate more in countering contemporary threats. Suga lacks Abe’s diplomatic stature or experience and will face tough challenge in managing the alliance while also maintaining momentum on Abe’s multi-pronged activist diplomacy. Currently, there is considerable speculation about Suga’s plans to call a snap election this autumn while he enjoys a honeymoon and before bad news erodes his support.