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Fear of crumbling US-Japan pact drove Abe's defense expansion

Next PM will face tough choices as Washington balks at huge military costs

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25, 2019.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Shinzo Abe leaves the post of Japan's prime minister with many tasks unfinished, including the economic revitalization promised by Abenomics, but his achievements in diplomacy and security should be recognized by future generations.

The most significant of these is mending and strengthening the relationship with the U.S. after it frayed under Abe's predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan. Abe also partnered with Australia and India to lay a stepping-stone for security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Yet Japan's safety remains far from assured. The surrounding security environment has deteriorated to the point of canceling out Abe's accomplishments.

Abe himself is no doubt keenly aware of this fact. While in office, aides say, he was constantly concerned that Japan's stability could not be maintained without further reinforcing its alliance with the U.S.

His government implemented landmark security legislation in March 2016 that enables Japan to exercise a limited right to collective self-defense -- the ability to come to the aid of allies under attack -- to support American forces.

Abe also reversed the shrinking of Japan's defense budget, which steadily grew from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2020, enabling Tokyo to enhance the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces. His establishment of a National Security Council created a framework allowing for speedy course changes in foreign policy.

Some opposition parties' politicians and experts condemned Abe, whom they perceived as trying to loosen checks on the use of force and make Japan a nation that can wage war again. Some observers interpreted his insistence on revising a constitution drafted under American military occupation as a means to strengthen Japan's forces and ultimately enable it to stand on its own, independent of the U.S.

But looking back on the inner workings of Abe's government paints a different picture. Far from seeking to become independent of Washington, Abe was desperate to keep American forces involved in Japan's defense and ensure its stability.

According to sources in the government and Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, the prime minister worried that if Japan did not do more to build up its own defenses, U.S. voters would be less and less willing to accept America's obligation to defend the country. He also noted that North Korea's nuclear arsenal and China's military expansion had significantly increased the costs and risks to Washington.

And so, he argued, it would become difficult to preserve stability even with the alliance if Japan did not play a wider variety of roles in its own defense.

It is true that the balance of naval power between the U.S. and China is shifting in Beijing's direction, at least in numerical terms. A report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Defense acknowledged that China has "the largest navy in the world," with about 350 ships and submarines to the U.S. Navy's 293. China has well over 1,000 land-launched medium-range cruise missiles, while America has none.

Abe pushed ahead with the 2016 security legislation in the face of polarized public opinion and a sinking approval rating because he feared that the Japan-U.S. alliance could eventually weaken or even collapse.

Are these fears overblown? Exchanges between Washington and Tokyo in recent years hint that they may not be.

In his 14 meetings with Abe, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly griped about a relationship he considered "unfair."

When the U.S. sent three aircraft carriers to the Korean Peninsula during the escalation of the North Korea crisis in 2017, Trump reportedly complained about the massive cost and said Tokyo ought to do more.

The president has also openly questioned the two countries' defense pact, calling it "unfair" that the U.S. is obligated to protect Japan but not the other way around. It would be a serious mistake to assume that this is just another case of "Trump being Trump" and thus should not be taken at face value.

It was not Trump, but his predecessor Barack Obama, who said that the U.S. "would not play the role of the world's policeman." Even if Obama's former vice president, Joe Biden, defeats Trump in the upcoming presidential election, this attitude is unlikely to change.

Over the past two decades, the U.S. has grappled with wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and, domestically, historically high inequality and division. There is a growing sense among the public that Washington should first focus on fixing matters at home rather than protecting foreign countries.

In a survey released last November by the U.S.-based Eurasia Group Foundation, 57.6% of respondents said the U.S. should reduce its military presence in Asia. The coronavirus pandemic has probably strengthened this view.

For the government following Abe's, it will be vital to recognize this trend from the outset and ensure the alliance does not run out of steam. There are numerous issues that will need to be worked out with Washington right away, including a new missile defense system with the shelving of Aegis Ashore, as well as the question of whether the SDF should develop counterattack capabilities.

Meanwhile, many in the opposition parties still object to the security law. If so, they should offer a detailed alternative plan for how to strengthen the alliance and respond to a difficult security environment.

Building a stable relationship with China through deeper economic cooperation and dialogue will also be important. Since 2017, Abe has offered support under certain conditions for projects under President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and Xi had been slated for a state visit to Japan this year before the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet amid this, Beijing has made incursions around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as Diaoyu and expanded its military presence in the East and South China seas.

The next prime minister will have no choice but to continue its efforts to defuse tension with China while taking steps to bolster national security.

Even with more consecutive days in office than any other Japanese prime minister, strengthening the alliance with the U.S. was no easy feat for Abe. Continuing these efforts -- and maintaining a system to ensure that the horrors of war are not repeated -- will be his successor's most important duty.

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