During Abe’s truncated earlier term as prime minister, his key security policy initiatives included making constitutional revisions to enable Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense, and establishing a national security council.
Neither survived his September 2007 resignation, but Abe told his first press conference after taking the helm this week they were both back on the agenda.
He also described Japan’s alliance with the U.S. as “the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy,” saying that strengthening bilateral ties was “the first step in turning Japan’s foreign and security policy around.”
Abe, who claims the alliance suffered during three years under the center-left Democratic Party of Japan, says he hopes to visit Washington as early as next month.
“More than anything else, it is imperative that we rebuild the relationship of trust we enjoy under the Japan-U.S. alliance.”
Abe also announced the creation of a new cabinet portfolio – a minister in charge of reinforcing national security – while an envisaged national security council would serve as a “control tower.”
Under current interpretations of the war-renouncing constitution, drafted by U.S. military lawyers after Imperial Japan’s defeat in 1945, Japan cannot exercise its right to come to the defense of an ally under attack.
Although the two countries signed a Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in 1960, Japan’s ability to respond to an armed attack against the U.S. in the region is constrained by its constitution.
(Article five of the treaty states: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”)
The U.S. deploys some 50,000 troops in Japan.
In a neighborhood where crises could potentially erupt on the Korean peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait, or be sparked by various territorial disputes between an increasingly-assertive China and other countries in the region including their own, many Japanese conservatives have wanted to remove the constitutional restrictions, regarding them as a curb on the ability of the world’s third-largest economy to play a bigger role on the regional and international stage.
During his earlier term Abe set up an expert panel to investigate collective self-defense options. Now the prime minister – only the second Japanese politician to make such a comeback since World War II – has a rare opportunity to pick up on the issue.
The return of a conservative government in Japan comes at a time when the Obama administration has been pursuing a “pivot” to Asia. Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the region will be the “the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity” this century and has worked to strengthen relationships across the region.
Beijing regards the “pivot” as an attempt by the U.S. to counterbalance its rise, and Abe’s declared emphasis on the alliance with Washington will fuel that view.
“China hopes Japan takes a peaceful development path and plays a constructive role in regional peace,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press briefing Wednesday.
Less diplomatic was an editorial Thursday in the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times, which said it was unrealistic to expect relations with Japan to improve.
“Tension has existed in the Sino-Japanese relationship for more than a decade,” it said. “Given that the situation in the Asia-Pacific hasn’t improved, the relationship of the two countries cannot really become warmer.”
The paper said there was a possibility that Japan could “become an anti-China country even more radical than the U.S.,” but said ultimately the main concern for China was the U.S., rather than Japan.
In its editorial take on the new Japanese government, the state-run China Daily said that if Abe follows the policies he outlined while campaigning he will “only aggravate the tension” already existing over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
It noted that Abe had told President Obama shortly before the election that the security environment in East Asia was “severe” because of China’s growing “assertiveness,” but said he had failed to mention that Japan’s actions were responsible for the bilateral tensions.
“Japan must be reminded that its intention to use its alliance with the US as pressure to deter China or stabilize the bilateral relations will not work,” China Daily said.
Meanwhile there is no sign that the simmering dispute over the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, will be resolved soon.
A spokesman for China’s State Oceanic Administration on Thursday accused Japan of escalating the dispute by deploying military aircraft to “disturb” a Chinese marine surveillance plane patrolling airspace near the islands.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a press briefing the military was being “highly vigilant” about the Japanese activity and would “safeguard China’s maritime law enforcement activities and protect the country’s territorial integrity and maritime rights.”
At his press conference Wednesday Abe said he was resolved to “defend fully people’s lives, our territory and our beautiful ocean.”
Citing the Senkaku islands, he said “the security of Japan is not someone else’s problem; it is a crisis that exists right there and now.”
Situated about halfway between the Chinese mainland and Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa, the islands have been under disputed Japanese control since the late 19th century. The latest tensions erupted after the Japanese government earlier this year signed an agreement to buy three of the uninhabited islands from their owner, a businessman.
China declared the move illegal, complained to the United Nations and surveillance ships to waters around the islands, where Japanese coastguard vessels are also deployed.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned last September that a “misjudgment” by either side could trigger a clash that could escalate into war.
Any such conflict would directly impact the United States: While saying it does not back either country’s claim to the islands, the U.S. has since 2004 made clear that it regards the islands as falling within the scope of article five of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.