Misstep by Beijing led to rise of Abe and new security law

September 22, 2015 13:24
Protesters hold banners condemning Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outside parliament Saturday. Photo: Reuters

The controversial national security bills tabled by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were passed in the House of Councilors, the upper house of the National Diet, in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

The bills, spearheaded by the ruling coalition, have now become law, allowing Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since the end of World War II.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and other opposition parties can now only hope that an angry public will bring down the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the next election so that a new government can rewrite or scrap the legislation.

There is a chance this could happen, as public opinion polls have shown that those opposing the legislation make up more than half of the voters and that Abe’s popularity is dropping.

The prime minister will have a tough time should his “Abenomics” policies fail to deliver the economic recovery he has promised.

But I think the odds of a reversal in the security legislation are slim.

Young Japanese voters are generally docile toward their leaders.

Their gravest response is to complain or grumble if they feel unhappy about government policies.

In a metropolis of 13 million, the protests in Tokyo before the legislation was passed were able to mobilize merely tens of thousands of people, the largest one attended by 120,000.

What deserves more attention is the common stance of the country's intellectuals.

More than 200 constitutional scholars have condemned the legislation, saying Abe’s new interpretation of Article 9 of the nation’s "Peace Constitution", which stipulates that Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right, is unconstitutional.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has also objected to the new laws.

But a constitutional review is highly unlikely, given the high threshold for the standing to sue and the Japanese Supreme Court’s past inclination to see eye to eye with the government on national security issues.

Now Abe has sent a shock wave to the military equilibrium in Asia, triggering a fresh arms race.

One proof is Beijing’s display of its prowess less than 12 hours after the passage of the legislation: it launched the Long March 6 heavy-lift rocket, which can send 20 satellites into space in one go.

Stern admonitions to Tokyo from Beijing and Seoul notwithstanding, the international community at large has responded quite positively to the new laws, thanks to the solid image of a non-aggressive power that Japan has succeeded in building in the past decades.

The United States, numerous European Union members, Australia, India and Association of Southeast Asian Nations members such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia all flagged their non-objection to the legislation.

Note that many of them fought Japan in the world war.

Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, was in fact in Japan for an official visit when the bills were passed.

The fact that the two countries agreed to deepen their strategic tie-up is a clear indication of Vietnam’s supportive stance.

Russia didn’t say anything negative about the national security bills either.

Instead, it invited Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida for a meeting in Moscow on territorial disputes.

Beijing, by contrast, has made a series of blunders in its foreign policy over the years.

It was once on good terms with Tokyo after DPJ co-founder Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister in 2009.

Despite some trivial incidents, relations remained smooth during Yoshihiko Noda’s prime ministership starting in 2011, until Noda's decision in 2012 to buy three uninhabited islands of the Senkaku (known in China as Diaoyu) chain from private owners as a pre-emptive move when the hawkish rightist Shintaro Ishihara, former governor of Tokyo, started to raise funds to buy these islets amid a heated territorial dispute with China.

Noda's move was said to be of benign intent, but Beijing responded harshly and dispatched two warships into the troubled waters.

Bilateral relations took a beating as a result and have stayed chilly ever since.

A year later, Beijing announced a unilateral air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.

The fact is that for years the Senkaku Islands have been under Japan’s effective control: last year alone, the country added berths, beacons and other facilities carrying the "Circle of the Sun", its national flag.

There would be no difference whether Senkaku was owned and developed by private entities or the Japanese government.

Souring relations with Beijing was one of the reasons for the DPJ's defeat in the 2012 general election, which led to Abe’s return as prime minister.

Japan has already reinterpreted Article 9 of its constitution in the past.

When the constitution was promulgated in 1946, the entire society, still reeling from the devastating war, was idealistic about such a clause: any force, even for self-defense, “must never be maintained”.

Yet a shift occurred during the Korean War in 1950, when the United States demanded that Japan set up an auxiliary force called the National Police Reserve, despite Tokyo's profound reluctance.

The force was the predecessor of the Japan Self-Defense Force, which is now one of the most powerful and well-equipped armies in the region.

It is Beijing’s lack of forbearance that lent Abe a second chance to rise to power and promote his nationalistic agenda.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 21.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Shinzo Abe (third from left) waits in the parliamentary chamber for his bills to be passed. Photo: Kyodo

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal