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Japan’s Abe Closer to His Dream

Can Japan financially afford to be the muscular regional leader that Abe and the ruling LDP want it to be?

Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Japan’s inability to foot the bill of military expansion will put a lid on Abe’s aspirations.
  • The public appetite for Japan to expand its military role is remains weak at best.
  • Despite justified attacks on PM Abe’s plans, no opposition party has presented a viable alternative.

Japan has plenty to be fearful about, not least its murky economic outlook and ever-rising tensions with North Korea as well as China.

All along, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reaction to the massive challenges which his country faces has been focused on institutional change. He was keen to obtain the necessary majorities in both houses of the Japanese parliament to be able to change the constitution.

Abe close to his long-time goal

After the latest July 10 elections, he is now very close to realizing that goal. After the upper house elections, he and his party, the LDP, now have a so-called “super-majority” of two-thirds of the votes in either house.

That enables him to remove the pacifist clamps from Japan’s constitution and opt for a more muscular foreign policy.

While Abe is now able to press ahead with its own vision for future in Japan’s legislature, the question is whether he will be able to make Japan strong enough to bolster its position as a leading Asian power.

Can Japan afford a stronger military?

The key question is whether Japan can actually financially afford to be the regional leader that Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party want it to be.

Now that the LDP has two-thirds of the Upper House seats as well as in the Lower House that is needed for legislative change, expectations are high.

After a revision of the Japan’s constitution that is now entirely within his reach, Mr. Abe is expected to expand his country’s military capabilities.

That involves a set of measures — from spending more on defense to deploying troops outside of its borders — both of which are restrained under the current constitution that was drawn up by U.S. forces when it occupied Japan after World War II.

Even though public protests in Japan to such a move by Abe will undoubtedly be considerable, the fact remains that opposition parties including the Democratic Party failed to leverage such sentiment into a coherent platform to push back against the LDP’s political aspirations.

What is likely to keep a lid on Abe’s military aspirations is purely practical reasons, namely that the government simply won’t be able to foot the bills needed for such an expansion.

Social spending versus defense

In short, the question is whether Japan will be strong enough economically to become the regional that Prime Minister Abe would like it to be.

Can the government really afford to increase its military spending to rise above 1% when its debt levels are so high?

The fact that Japan’s social spending bill will only continue to rise, given the rapidly aging society, surely won’t make things any easier on Abe.

Granted, the main emphasis of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s platform for the Upper House elections was to reinvigorate the fledging economy. Abe’s campaign also focused on stressing the success of “Abenomics” to date and its potential in coming years.

Japan’s completely ineffective opposition

On this crucial front, for all the justified attacks on the pitfalls of, and holes in, Abe’s plans to jump-start growth through monetary and fiscal stimulus, and especially its inability to get structural reform on track, there have been no viable alternative plans posed by any political party.

Given the budgetary constraints of the United States, and a diminishing appetite among U.S. voters to bolster spending to ensure security in the Asia-Pacific, the need for Japan to ensure that it can ensure its own defense continues to rise.

That is certainly the direction the Abe government is pushing in, and the latest election results brings it closer to being able to reach that goal.

Nonetheless, public appetite for Japan to expand its military role is remains weak at best.

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About Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is the senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [Washington, D.C, United States]

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