Fresh from his trip to Washington, D.C., Abe Shinzo has thrust himself into the debate over how Japan should respond to North Korea's rocket launch this month.
On Tuesday he delivered an address to the new study group led by Yamamoto Ichita (discussed in this post) that calls for an "investigation" into the development of conventional deterrent capabilities that would enable Japan to strike at bases in North Korea. Abe endorsed the group's aims and stressed the importance of permitting collective self-defense for the sake of strengthening the alliance. Of particular interest is that Abe argued that acquiring the technological capabilities to strike North Korea and the legal framework that would enable Japan to use its new capabilities would strengthen the alliance. I suppose it is possible to argue that any improvement in Japan's capabilities would strengthen the US-Japan alliance, but I find that argument fallacious. It is easy enough to imagine how Japan's having the ability to strike North Korea directly would undermine the alliance by posing the risk that Japan might entrap the US in a shooting war not desired by Washington. After all, look at the differences between the official US and Japanese responses to this month's launch.
It seems unlikely that Japan would actually use conventional strike capabilities to attack North Korea, but then again, if Japan actually acquired said capabilities, it seems conceivable that the government might feel pressured to use them if presented with evidence of an imminent North Korean attack (which raises questions about the Japanese government's ability to discern an imminent strike, and whether it would shoot first and ask questions later).
There are other questions worth asking. Would an independent Japanese conventional deterrent make much of a difference in the alliance's ability to deter North Korea? What capabilities does the US lack when it comes to deterring North Korea from striking in any direction? More importantly, how will Japan be any less deterred from launching an attack on North Korea than the US, especially without nuclear weapons in its arsenal? (Over to you, Nakagawa Shoichi!) At the same time, by calling for independent strike capabilities, Abe and other conservatives may be raising doubts — intentionally or unintentionally — about the US security guarantee where fewer existed before, which could in turn...lead to more support for precisely the policy called for by the conservatives.
As far as I am concerned, the biggest difference between Ozawa Ichiro and his conservative critics on defense policy is that at least Ozawa is frank about his desire for a more independent Japan capable of saying no to the US.
This speech by Abe is another sign that far from having softened his image following his fall from power, Abe appears to have learned nothing and is no less obsessed with remaking Japan according to his vision, a vision that in security policy entails barely veiled disgust with postwar Japan as it exists and a view of international politics that belongs more in the nineteenth than the twenty-first century.
Perhaps Abe believes that he will get another shot at the premiership without adjusting at all after his disastrous first at-bat. But in practical terms Abe's recent activities may be more about Abe's reclaiming his position as the LDP's leading conservative ideologue than about his scheming for another run for the LDP presidency, which for the foreseeable future is unlikely to be an option open to him. If Aso Taro manages to lead the LDP to victory, his position will be cemented, forcing Abe to wait, perhaps indefinitely for another chance; if Aso and the LDP lose, it is unlikely that the LDP would turn to a man who would bear much (indirect) responsibility for that defeat to lead the party in opposition.
Abe may be better off as conservative-in-chief. Even as prime minister Abe preferred pontificating about the future and musing about how Japan ought to be than coping with Japan as it is, warts and all. As chief ideologue, Abe can give speeches to LDP study groups and Washington think tanks to his heart's delight, leaving the hard choices and compromises of governing to someone else. He will face little competition for the job. Aso, for all his shortcomings, is far superior to Abe as a politician; whatever his ideological predilictions, he has not forgotten that his job as prime minister is to govern on behalf of all Japanese and his job as LDP president is to help his party win the next election. Aso certainly has his predilictions — his fervent belief in Japan's latent power — but unlike Abe he has tried to square his beliefs with public insecurities, instead of ignoring the insecurities to focus on the ideology. And besides, Aso is a bit too much of a maverick even among conservatives to fit comfortably as the conservative-in-chief.
Abe, without question a true believer, is a better fit for the job. Lucky for him he has plenty of time on his hands.
Other posts by Tobias Harris: