Japan elections: what an Abe victory would mean for security

Japan elections: what an Abe victory would mean for security

On the heels of Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test and missile launches over Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called a snap general election for October 22, in which the Liberal Democratic Party pledges to change the Constitution of 1946. Will North Korea’s threatening behavior affect Abe’s bid to reinterpret Article 9?

Campaign Proposal for Constitution Revision on Article 9 

Since returning to power in 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under Abe has struggled to redefine Japan’s defense posture. The LDP aims at carving a greater scope of responsibilities for the Self-Defense Force (SDF) and overturning decades of legal limitations enshrined in Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution. This past May, Abe announced his plan to amend the constitution by 2020. North Korea’s increasingly threatening rhetoric and the launch of two intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Hokkaido provided Abe an opportunity to start implementing this plan.

On 25 September, Abe dissolved parliament and called for a snap election to take place on 22 October. Constitutional amendments will take central stage in the LDP’s campaign platform, capitalizing on the recent boost in public support in response to Abe’s strong-line response to North Korea. It pledges to utilize the SDF as a mean to strengthen deterrence against future North Korean provocations. The LDP proposes to add a new clause to Article 9 that legitimizes the expansion of the SDF while keeping the original text intact. The current Article 9 includes the renunciation of “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” and the disavowal of “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

Abe’s Gamble

A large enough victory in this election would allow Abe to push through his constitutional revisions. It will be crucial for Abe’s ruling coalition to retain a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber. This will permit Abe to submit an amendment for approval in a national referendum.

In response to North Korea’s aggression, Prime Minister Abe has sought to further cultivate a public image of a resolute defender of Japanese national security. After calling a snap election, Abe told voters only he could protect them from the threat of North Korean missiles. Abe has entered into discussions with the United States and South Korea on potential responses to North Korea, and has been a strong voice of opposition against North Korea’s weapons program in the UN General Assembly. Abe’s hardline stance has capitalized on Japan’s historic memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resonating among citizens fearful of nuclear conflict.

If the LDP wins the election, Abe will have a chance to secure de facto recognition for his vision of the SDF under Article 9. Although not challenging the underlying limits placed on collective security, de facto recognition will grant the LDP future opportunities to expand interpretations of the Article and continue to pursue a normalized Japanese military.

Possible Political Backlash and Security Dilemma

On May 1st, Japan contributed to a U.S.-Japan security alliance operation by sending its maritime self-defense fleet to escort the U.S. naval contingent deployed off the Korean Peninsula in response to North Korea’s missile tests. Abe’s proposed recognition for the SDF could further strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, allowing Japan to play a stronger role in the security of East Asia and more readily respond to regional contingencies. In addition, Abe would receive a domestic mandate on for his more hawkish diplomatic and defense policies to deal with escalating threats from North Korea and other conflicts in the region.

A further expansion of Japan’s defense interests and military operations in the region will likely intensify the security dilemma in East Asia and stoke regional tensions. China has long been concerned about the prospect of a fully militarized Japan, and would see the recognition of SDF’s existence as proposed in the campaign agenda as a signal that Japan intends to move closer towards its remilitarization. In the East China Sea, Japan would likely take a more assertive stance against the frequent presence of Chinese coastguard vessels, which will degrade the level of strategic trust between the two countries and potentially prompt a stronger response. Furthermore, as a country with the world’s third largest military expenditure, once it changes the peace clause in its constitution, Japan will be hard-pressed to retain a policy of reassurance to its neighboring countries. On the contrast, the threat that Japan’s military power, such as missile defense capacity, will be likely to trigger an arms race in northeastern Asia, or accelerate an arms race that is somehow already underway, which would possibly lead the region into the direction of nuclearization.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Qi Lin

Qi is a Washington, D.C.-based analyst. She specializes in East Asian security and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Chinese native speaker and proficient in English. She holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of North Carolina and a Master’s in International Affairs from the George Washington University.