T.J. Pempel is Jack M. Forcey Professor of Political Science at the University of California-Berkeley, where he served as director of the Institute of East Asian Studies from 2002 until 2006. Before moving to Berkeley, he was at the University of Washington at Seattle, where he was the Boeing Professor of International Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies and an adjunct professor in Political Science. From 1972 to 1991, he was on the faculty at Cornell University; he was also Director of Cornell's East Asia Program. Professor Pempel's research and teaching focus on comparative politics, political economy, contemporary Japan, and Asian regionalism. His recent books include Security Cooperation in Northeast Asia, and Remapping East Asia: The Construction of a Region.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense amount to a dramatic shift, or one more incremental step toward Japan ‘normalizing’ security policy?
PEMPEL: I see two changes taking place under Prime Minister Abe. First: There are the security changes, and the gradual expansion of the interpretation of what the Self Defense Forces can do. This is very much part of changes that can be traced back at least to Prime Minister Koizumi, and in some ways probably all the way back to Nakasone. The decision to send SDF forces into Iraq; the decision to provide logistical support to the US in Afghanistan through vessel refueling; raising the status of the Defense Agency into a full-fledged ministry. These are all part of a series of logical, incremental changes that involve a larger role for the SDF.
Secondly, however, is that all of these changes are packed by Abe in an ideological wrapping paper involving reinterpretations of history.
This creates a problem. Abe is promoting the logical exercising of the right of collective self-defense at the same time that he is challenging the 1995 Murayama Statement on World War II responsibility, and the 1993 Kono Statement on Comfort Women. This creates a good deal of push-back from the Japanese public. It also generates a great deal of animosity in South Korea, and plays into the Chinese leadership’s efforts to legitimize the Communist Party by painting Japan as a resurgent military power.
Things would have gone a lot easier with regard to collective self-defense had Abe been focusing on the economy, delivering economic benefits, and treating collective self-defense as just one more effort to enhance Japan’s regional role as both an economic and military power. But Abe has been vehement in challenging Article 9, and dismissing the Constitution as an American document jammed down the throats of Japanese, which amounted to “victor’s justice.” All of this has made it very hard for the public, and the region as a whole, to accept any changes in collective self-defense, because it looks as if the change is part of a much broader nationalist package.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The Obama Administration was unusually vocal in supporting the Abe government’s adoption of collective self-defense, which likely gave a boost to Abe’s efforts. But Abe has contributed to worsening relations with Seoul, he won’t rule out another visit to Yasukuni, and he has yet to deliver on the TPP trade talks. Was it wise for the US to back Abe in this way?
PEMPEL: It reflects the internal ambivalence of the US on how to deal with China, and how to deal with the region. I am simplifying a bit, but in effect, the Pentagon sees the issues of security in East Asia through the lens of the military shift in power, the rise of Chinese military expenditures, and the threat from North Korea. For the Pentagon to support collective self-defense is very logical. It is great from their standpoint. They assume this will mean closer cooperation in defense and security planning between the SDF and the US, all of which bolsters the capacity of the US military in East Asia. There is no indication right now that Japan is likely to go in any direction other than the direction the Pentagon favors. That may be different at some point down the road, but for now, that is one side of the American reaction to China.
The flip side stems from US business and economic interests, which say that China’s growth is important, and the US should focus on further integration of the two economies. Those voices have been a bit drowned out, as the Pentagon has focused so intensely on the Chinese military challenge. This has gained priority, which has helped Abe to get an endorsement from the US on collective self-defense.
Simultaneously, because of the ideological wrapping paper Abe has placed around collective self-defense, the change really handicaps relations with South Korea, which is really problematic for the US. Korean President Park Geun-hye does not want anything to do with Abe. She is very animated by Abe’s challenges to the Kono Statement and the comfort women issue. That plays well with her domestic politics. And it gives China’s President Xi Jinping a chance to keep distance from Japan as well.
We have seen a freezing of the trilateral meetings between the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea that had been going on for quite a while. The discussion of a possible free trade area among the three has fallen flat. Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye have been dancing in the same room together, if not quite doing a sexy salsa together.
In some respects, Abe is pushing South Korea in a direction that the US is not very happy with.
The ideal for the US would be: Abe focuses on Japan’s economy, Japan slides gradually into a more expanded collective self-defense posture, but says very nice things to the other American allies in the region, and has a much more active role in Asian regional institutions, like the East Asia Summit. But Abe is not playing what I think would be the ideal American strategic game.
DISPATCH JAPAN: To what extent do you think it was inevitable that Japan exercise the right of collective self-defense?
PEMPEL: I am not a strong believer in inevitabilities, but the trend was certainly there since the end of the Cold War for Japan to take on an increasing role for its Self Defense Forces. The reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow for exercising the right of collective self-defense is a watershed moment that might not have needed to take on the drama that it did.
I think Japan could have slid into a de facto exercising of the collective self-defense right. The public might have been more willing to accept that. Abe chose to get on a bull horn. He originally proposed a revision of the Constitution but ran into push-back. He switched to reinterpreting Article 9, and began to push for a change in the traditional interpretation handed down by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB). He put his own guy in charge of the CLB to help shift the traditional interpretation.
In my view, all of this unnecessarily sent up red flags, saying: “Look everyone. We are making a major change.” I think many of these changes could have moved along gradually.
Under Koizumi, for example, there was a greater degree of collective planning between the SDF and I Corps, the unit of the US Army that would play an important command role in the event of a contingency in the region. I Corps has since moved its headquarters from Ft. Lewis in Washington state to Camp Zama in Tokyo. This enhanced the interactive planning capabilities of the US and the SDF.
No one got terribly animated about this.
But Abe is firmly committed to a complete reinterpretation of Japan’s role in World War II, of what he sees as “victor’s justice” that treated Japan unfairly at the end of the war. He’s opposed to the current Constitution because it was written by Americans and, in his view, imposed on Japan.
For Abe, these are deep ideological commitments. Reinterpreting Article 9 to allow for collective self-defense is just part of a much larger goal. In his gut, Abe thinks the first thing Japan must do is overcome its sense of having done something wrong in World War II, and to rebuild a sense of patriotism.
Abe made a big public splash about collective self-defense because it is part of his aim to end what he calls the “postwar regime,” and restore Japan to its rightful role as a major player in regional and perhaps even global security affairs.
Collective self-defense itself could have been adopted more gradually through ongoing, incremental steps to reinterpret and expand the definition of what the SDF can do.
But Abe wanted to make it a very big, public issue. He’s done that, probably to his detriment politically.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Right. Polls show that the Japanese public, at best, is ambivalent about the exercising of collective self-defense. A majority remains opposed.
PEMPEL: It depends on how the polls are conducted, and interpreted. Sankei polls pose questions in a way designed to make it seem the public is supportive of Abe. Asahi and Mainichi generally formulate their poll questions differently. That said, it is clear the public is not rallying around Abe on the collective self-defense issue, in contrast to the way the public rallied behind the promises of Abenomics. When Abe first came back to office in late 2012, the public rallied behind him as he talked about economics. The initial enthusiasm seemed to boost the stock market. Consumption went up.
But then it began to seem that Abenomics had stalled because of the failure to deliver on structural reform, known as the “third arrow.” Abe did not focus on economics in the way he said he would. Instead, he was equally interested in promoting defense and security issues, and “historical revisionism” issues.
The public began to realize that Abe’s agenda was much more complicated than getting the economy going again. They’ve come to realize that while they would have liked a better economy, they are not quite sure Abe is really the guy to deliver it. And they are not sure that other items Abe is pushing are things they want to embrace.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How do you expect collective self-defense to affect SDF roles and missions?
PEMPEL: My sense is that the new policy will not make a whole lot of difference for SDF operations, at least in the short –to-medium term. The SDF has its long term plans and strategies with respect to increased coordination with the US, the equipment it plans to buy, and increased participation in regional security exercises with other Asian nations.
I don’t think we are likely to see a fundamental shift in the missions the SDF takes on.
There certainly is no indication that the SDF budget is going to be radically ramped up to enhance its roles and missions.
We may see a lot of subtle things that are actually quite important. There may be a lot more coordinated interaction between the American military and the SDF. There could be coordinated joint flights, or joint naval operations in contested areas.
But I don’t see this as a fundamental shift. For example, I don’t think we are going to see six MSDF vessels steaming into areas around the Senkakus, guns ready to fire at Chinese fishing boats, or Chinese oceanographic exploration vessels, or anything of that sort.
What they have been doing up to now is likely to be a predictor of what they will be doing over the next 3-5 years.
DISPATCH JAPAN: My sense is that US commanders are mainly concerned about a Korean contingency, and that integration of information systems is the priority. For example, joint monitoring of North Korean submarines and aircraft.
PEMPEL: That would all be to the good. I don’t think Japan should be a pacifist Switzerland of the East, totally docile in the midst of an increasingly challenging security environment in the region.
It should very much be in the purview of the SDF to deal with immediate challenges or threats, such as North Korean aircraft or missiles, without having to go through the legislature. We can all remember the ridiculous arguments that some made in Japan that in the midst of a crisis – even an attack on Japan – the SDF would still have to abide by municipal regulations, such as transport vehicles having to stop at red lights.
Clearly, the military has to be able to respond to a crisis in a timely, immediate fashion.
But I share the concerns that many have voiced about the deterioration of Japan-ROK relations, and the trilateral US-Japan-ROK relationship.
Abe is also not helping US strategy to engage China while also hedging against China. With China, Abe paints things much too simplistically black and white. I don’t think he has even a remotely nuanced view of China. Right now, he sees China as an enemy, and a convenient tool to try to mobilize domestic support against growing Chinese military capabilities. He is not doing a very good job of integrating Japan-China cooperation on things like the environment, trade and investment, humanitarian relief operations, or other areas of common interest.
He sees China simply as a threat, and is appealing to the public in this way, which is an approach that sorely lacks nuance.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you expect to happen between Tokyo and Seoul?
PEMPEL: On some level, Abe understands that Japan has to get along with South Korea. He has constantly been talking about the importance of meeting with Park Geun-hye. But he doesn’t seem to realize that she does not want to meet just to meet. She has a very clear sense of who Abe is in the world of nationalist and revisionist politics in Japan, and what he has been doing that is very provocative to Korea. I think Abe is tone-deaf about this. It conflicts with his world view, what he thinks happened in World War II, and all the good things he thinks Japan did for Korea in the colonial era. They have very different views of history.
Abe wants reconciliation with Korea on his terms. To be fair, Park Geun-hye wants it on her terms. But I think her terms are a little less unreasonable than his are sometimes.
To the extent that Abe cannot acknowledge the role of the military in the comfort women system, he makes it very difficult for relations with Seoul to improve.
We all know that the history of prewar Japan is very complicated, and there are pluses and minuses. But Abe does not want to see any of the minuses.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you see any movement toward improvement?
PEMPEL: Not much. I spoke with Assistant Secretary Danny Russel the other day, and it is safe to say that Secretary of State Kerry really wants to see improvement in Japan-Korea relations. But brokering a deal between Japan and Korea at this point would be only slightly easier than brokering a deal between Hamas and Israel.
Right now, Park does not see the need for closer ties with Japan if that would mean somehow acceding to Abe’s view of history.
Things might be different if Abe were to stay away from Yasukuni for one year. It would even be better if he were to make a formal statement that he will not go there so long as he is prime minister. It would also help if he were to reassert the Murayama Statement and the Kono Statement, in effect to show significant accommodation to a Korean perspective, which I think is a more correct interpretation of Japan in the prewar war period. If we were to see Abe act in this way, I could see a visit between Abe and Park taking place.
But as of now, the conditions are not conducive to that happening. I don’t think an Abe-Park meeting is going to happen until Abe shows some real signs of shifting.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you think Abe is up to with Pyongyang?
PEMPEL: I think Abe, at least in part, is sending a message to Seoul that Japan can do some things with the North that Seoul may not like, and that Japan does not have to be confined by Seoul’s approach to the North. Abe used the abductee issue, even prior to his first term as prime minister, as a vehicle for mobilizing Japanese domestic support against any kind of normalization of relations with North Korea. Abe helped make the abductee issue a real thorn in the Six-Party Talks regarding the North’s nuclear weapons program.
I always thought Abe was over-playing the abductee issue. I never got the sense that there was hard and fast evidence that supported Japan’s position that Megumi was alive, or that there were hundreds of Japanese kidnapped.
For Abe to make this shift indicates something very different is going on.
North Korea is also the only country with UN membership with which Japan does not have diplomatic relations. The Foreign Ministry has long been pushing for some kind of improvement in ties with Pyongyang.
It is also a way for Abe to challenge China, which is the major player in North Korea. Beijing is not very happy with Pyongyang, but China has continued to pump money into North Korea, and remains Pyongyang’s only friend. Improved Japan-North Korea relations would send a message to Beijing that Pyongyang has other options than total dependence on China.
This is logically connected to Abe’s efforts to work with Russia. If Abe could make progress on the Northern Islands dispute, and resolve the abductee issue, he is going to look very good inside Japan.
This complicates things for the US. Washington continues to try to isolate Russia, and even though Japan has imposed sanctions, Abe has not closed the door to pursuing Japan-Russia talks. And with North Korea, the US priority very much remains denuclearization, with tough sanctions playing an important role.
Japan is clearly going off on its own with respect to Russia and North Korea, as far as the US is concerned.
The Obama Administration has a fairly nuanced view of how the pieces in East Asia have to be moved to enhance stability. This means multiple tools, part military, part hedging, part engagement.
Abe is much less nuanced.
He seems to think that Japan improving ties with North Korea and Russia will tweak the noses of Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye, and in his view that would be a good thing.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe seems to really want to meet Xi Jinping.
PEMPEL: Yes, he wants the meeting. He wants to be seen within the region and the global community as the guy who is somehow actively solving various diplomatic problems.
I don’t see it as being in Xi’s interest to meet Abe at this time. Japan is a great foil for Xi within his domestic political circumstance. The internet just explodes inside China every time Japan does something outlandish, such as a prime minister visiting Yasukuni, or a politician or textbook challenging the veracity of the Nanjing Massacre.
Xi is doing his best to develop a nuanced relationship with South Korea.
For different reasons, Xi and Park are convinced that Abe provides them a very convenient foil against which to play domestic politics, and to improve the China-ROK relationship.
I do not see a Xi-Abe meeting in the short-term. The economic ties between Japan and China will not be sufficient for Xi to give up the card of portraying Japan as hostile.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The irony is that on a tactical level, collective self-defense will enhance the operational effectiveness of the alliance. But strategically, it can be argued that Abe really complicates US strategy in the region.
PEMPEL: That’s right. Collective self-defense is not happening in isolation. Under Abe, the policy emerged as part of his revisionist view of history, and his nationalist perspective on Japan’s future. For Abe, it is part of a package, which makes it much more complicated in the region.
Militarily, collective self-defense is a very good idea, and is a logical extension of the direction Japan has been moving in for quite some time. But because Abe has put the policy in a heavily-ideological wrapping paper, it is a hard package for South Korea and China, and for much of the Japanese public, to accept.