ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter

Japan needs stronger defenses, more frequent security reviews: Abe

Deterrence keeps rogue countries 'from hitting the missile launch button,' former PM says

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks with Nikkei on Dec. 1. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- A military crisis over Taiwan would be "an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance," former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Nikkei on Wednesday, adding that his country needs to strengthen its own defenses to make the partnership a solid deterrent against threats in Indo-Pacific region.

Abe -- a kingmaker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who took over leadership of its largest faction in November -- called for more flexibility in updating Japan's security strategy to adapt to the fast-changing environment in East Asia.

He also stressed the similarities between his government and that of current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on economic policy while urging reforms to promote growth.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What is your take on the Kishida government after almost two months in power?

A: We won big in the lower house election. I believe winning the [LDP] leadership race and then prevailing in the general election has given the prime minister a lot of confidence. The initial picks for cabinet and party posts are extremely important, and I think everything went as he wanted.

Q: What is your understanding of the "new capitalism" advocated by Kishida?

A: He's spoken about it in the context of turning away from neoliberal policies. My government also called for a virtuous cycle of growth and distribution and distanced ourselves from neoliberal policies by raising the minimum wage and pushing for higher pay. I think the prime minister wants to emphasize that more.

But to avoid being misunderstood, he needs to clearly show the will and desire to grow [the economy]. A country that has lost the will to grow has no future. He can clear up any misunderstandings by expressing the basic stance that he will make the reforms that need to be made for growth.

Q: Some suggest that Kishida's call for a departure from neoliberalism is meant to distance himself from the your government's policies. What do you say to that?

A: When there's a change of government, people expect differences from previous government. It's a leader's job to meet those demands. But because he's also in the LDP, it'll be less like serving a different type of cooking and more like changing the seasonings.

Q: Kishida has given the impression that distribution will be a focus of his policy.

A: My government tried to put an end to the long-running debate over whether to put growth or distribution first by calling for distribution for the next stage of growth. I think the prime minister's policies are basically the same. The [opposition] Constitutional Democratic Party's distributive policies, however, are clearly wrong.

Q: What signal will you send on security policy as your party's largest faction?

A: It's about how to respond to a rising China and defend against the threat from North Korea. Strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance is the foundation of our security policy. Being on the front line [of U.S.-China tensions], Japan must show leadership and be at the core of stronger cooperation with willing partners.

There are human rights issues surrounding Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and the Uyghurs. The world is concerned about China's increasing military pressure on Taiwan. An emergency in Taiwan is an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Q: Japan's defense spending has been kept at around 1% of GDP. Should it be increased?

A: Japan needs to put in substantial effort on defense. While the U.S. has an obligation to defend Japan, it is also naturally asking us to do our part. During the Cold War, Europe had NATO. To achieve a similar balance in the Indo-Pacific, then it's going to be the Japan-U.S. alliance. The combined strength of the U.S. and Japan will be important, so of course, Japan needs to strengthen its own ability to fight. The reality is that China has double the submarines and aircraft of Japan.

Q: Japan's national security strategy is up for review in 2022. What would you like to see changed?

A: The National Defense Program Guidelines and the Medium Term Defense Program will probably be revised alongside it. These are updated together every 10 years or five years, but in today's world we need to be prepared to keep revising them as the situation changes.

The security environment is changing extremely fast. Technological progress has transformed conflicts and warfare. Especially in the cyber domain, the boundary between wartime and peacetime is fading. We need to be constantly updating our equipment and readiness.

Q: What do you see as the role of deterrence?

A: Deterrence raises the hurdles to a situation escalating into war. Weak deterrence capabilities lower these barriers and tempt other countries to use force. Deterrence includes the ability both to strike and to counterattack.

Q: Some of Japan's neighbors would say that these capabilities pose a threat.

A: But the fact that others perceive them as a threat is what makes them a deterrent. That's what stops them from hitting the missile launch button. It's ironic, but that's reality.

Q: Do you think that the discussion of Japan possibly acquiring "base-strike capability" could lead to misunderstandings?

A: I think we would be fine using the terms "counterattack capability" and "strike capability." In the first place, there's no need to limit it to enemy bases.

Relying entirely on the U.S. strike capability for deterrence creates the danger that countries will think that the U.S. might not retaliate if they attack Japan. Having the ability to counterattack would discourage a first strike against us. Japan and the U.S. exercising strike capabilities together would create a solid deterrent.

Q: Do Japan's existing missile defense systems serve their purpose?

A: They aren't a decisive deterrent, but they can derail opponents' plans.

Q: Do you support Taiwan's bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership?

A: President Tsai Ing-wen has said she is prepared to accept all of its rules. I support their membership.

Q: There is talk of a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing by the U.S. and Europe.

A: Athletes put themselves through intense training for a once-in-four-years opportunity, and points like that will factor into any decisions. The world is starting to see a need to send some sort of message on the human rights situation.

Q: What is your stance on the debate over revising the constitution?

A: We should always be thinking about revisions to protect our day-to-day lives. I myself have argued for changing [the war-renouncing] Article 9. We need to put an end to this abnormal situation where our Self-Defense Forces are not explicitly mentioned in the constitution. [The Abe faction] should be at the forefront of the constitutional debate. We'll take it on with a sense of purpose.

Q: How will your faction cultivate talent ahead of the next LDP leadership election?

A: We have three years until the next election. We'll decide at that time based on their performance up to that point. Our faction has an abundance of talent, so we'll think about what to do when the time comes.

Q: You backed now-LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi, who doesn't belong to a faction, in the last election.

A: She won more votes than many expected. Now it's her responsibility to live up to the expectations this has set.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more