Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed fresh determination to loosen constraints on his nation’s military and reduce economic regulation as he approaches the 18-month mark of his administration.
Abe cited China’s ballooning defense spending and “extremely dangerous” actions in the East China Sea to justify plans for a more active role for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in remarks to the Diet yesterday. He followed with a pledge to business leaders to adopt a flexible and merit-based employment system, saying revamping labor rules was crucial to his growth strategy.
Abe plans to make his case for Japan broadening the scope of its military at a gathering of Asian, U.S. and European defense officials in Singapore starting tomorrow.
“I want to tell the world about Japan’s plans for proactive contributions to peace based on international cooperation,” he said in parliament today. “Tensions are now rising in Southeast Asia. I want to show Japan’s basic thinking, which is about cooperating with Southeast Asia in the protection of international norms, not allowing a change in the status quo by force and respecting the rule of law.”
The premier is seeking to break down restrictions on Japan’s ability to use military force and work with allies under its U.S.-imposed postwar pacifist constitution, amid a simmering territorial dispute with China. The plan has sparked criticism from China and South Korea and a poll this week showed a majority of the Japanese oppose parts of the effort.
Abe said close encounters between Chinese fighter jets and Japanese surveillance planes on May 24 near islands claimed by both countries could have led to unforeseen consequences. He referred to China’s rapidly growing military budget and “opaque” security strategy, as well as its “attempts to change the status quo” in the South China Sea in response to questions in parliament.
Abe received a report from an advisory panel of academics earlier this month advocating that military restrictions enshrined by the constitution be loosened. His Liberal Democratic Party must gain support for the plan from its smaller coalition ally, New Komeito, which is backed by a pacifist Buddhist group. The second round of consultations between the parties on 16 scenarios that would allow military engagement ended yesterday without significant progress
The government campaign to allow so-called collective self defense comes as Abe prepares to lay out more details of his plan to spur economic growth after unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus that helped curb deflation and fuel stock market gains in his first year in office.
Abe said that working conditions must become more flexible in a country that faces labor shortages due to a shrinking population. The government would conduct a “bold review” of flex-time working to help those raising children and caring for the elderly remain in the work force, he said.
“With a limited number of workers, the success of the growth strategy depends on whether we can draw out the drive and talent of the Japanese people to work productively,” he said in remarks to his advisory panel on industrial competitiveness yesterday.
Abe is also seeking more flexibility in defense policy and is trying to convince his allies to support his effort for a broader interpretation of the constitution at time when public support for the change is flagging.
A survey carried out by the Nikkei newspaper between May 23-25 found 51 percent of respondents were opposed to changing the interpretation of the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution to allow Japan to defend allies. About 28 percent of the 1,032 respondents said they backed the idea.
Heart of Constitution
“Article 9 is the heart of the constitution,” Komeito party deputy secretary general Tetsuo Saito told Bloomberg in an interview on May 26. “To change that should take more than a reinterpretation. We should go through the full procedures for revising the constitution.”
Almost 70 percent of respondents to the Nikkei poll backed legal measures to strengthen Japanese troops’ ability to deal with what the government calls “gray zone” situations. These include armed groups, possibly disguised as fishermen, taking over a remote island.
The debate takes place as Chinese and Japanese coastguard ships regularly tail one another around uninhabited East China Sea islands claimed by both countries. In the South China Sea, Vietnam said a Vietnamese fishing boat sank after being rammed by a Chinese boat amid a standoff over an oil rig installed by China near disputed islands. China blamed the Vietnamese vessel for the sinking.
To illustrate the constraints under which Japan’s defense forces operate, the government this week presented the ruling coalition with a list of 16 scenarios where its military would currently be barred from responding. Here is that list:
1. deal with an armed group landing on a remote island; 2. deal with a Japan SDF vessel encountering illegal behavior on the high seas; 3. protect a U.S. naval vessel that is on guard against a ballistic missile launch; 4. deal with a foreign submarine entering Japanese waters without surfacing; 5. provide logistical support for UN action against an incursion; 6. protect other countries’ peace keepers or Japanese NGO workers; 7. use force on a peacekeeping mission; 8. rescue Japanese from another country; 9. protect a U.S. ship carrying Japanese citizens; 10. protect a U.S. ship under attack near Japan; 11. forcibly stop and inspect a ship; 12. intercept a missile flying over Japan toward the U.S.; 13. protect a U.S. naval vessel on guard against a ballistic missile launch while the U.S. is at war; 14. provide back-up for a counterattack near Japan after the mainland U.S. has been attacked; 15. take part in international mine sweeping operations; 16. take part in an international operation to protect commercial shipping.