Pushback on preemption

Prime Minister Tarō Asō and a group of national security hawks in the LDP may be pushing hard for the inclusion of preemptive capabilities in this year's National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), but it appears that while there is little opposition from within the LDP, the Aso government may yet have some difficulty getting its way on preemption.

The LDP's campaign for preemptive capabilities is part of a broader national security program compiled by a subcommittee of the national defense division of the party's Policy Research Council. In addition to the acquisition of preemptive defense capabilities — which the subcommittee maintains is critical to strengthening the US-Japan alliance — the draft calls for reversing cuts in defense spending, permitting collective self-defense, creating a "Japanese-style" National Security Council, relaxing the three arms-exporting principles to permit joint development, and altering Japan's policies on the defense of outlying islands.

Not surprisingly, Komeitō's leadership has aired its skepticism about both preemptive defense and a new law in the works on the inspection of North Korean vessels.

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Japan, criticized the calls for preemptive defense as being unhelpful for resolving the North Korean crisis.

It is unlikely that Ambassador Cui's criticism will do much to stymie the debate on preemptive self-defense — it is possible that he might convince some risk-averse LDP members to question the wisdom of significant changes to Japan's security posture, although, at the same time, his interjection has undoubtedly stiffened the resolve of the LDP's hawks. Komeitō opposition is more significant, at least in terms of having the power to prevent the government from embracing the proposed national defense program or, should Asō embrace the program, soften it considerably. Does Komeitō need to do anything more than remind the LDP of the importance of its votes in the forthcoming election in order to receive concessions from the LDP on security policy?

The question is whether public attitudes towards North Korea have shifted markedly since 2007. In 2007, then-Prime Minister Shinzō Abe sought to implement a national security agenda similarly to the agenda now under consideration. Much like today, Abe could appeal to "evidence" of a North Korean threat in the form of North Korea's missile and nuclear tests, at that time the July 2006 missile launches and the October 2006 nuclear test. He had control of both houses and was largely indifferent to Komeitō's interests. And yet he was unable to do anything more than convene an advisory group on collective self-defense, failed to pass legislation that would create a Japanese-style NSC, failed to reverse the decline in defense spending, and did nothing about preemptive self-defense capabilities. If Abe could not succeed in implementing this program, it seems highly unlikely that Asō will succeed where Abe failed, certainly not without an extraordinary and unexpected victory in this year's election.

The question is whether North Korea's latest actions have produced a tipping point in the Japanese public's approach to North Korea. Has North Korea's second launch over Japan and second nuclear test — combined with unease about the US-Japan alliance following the Bush administration's about-face on North Korea — made the Japanese public more favorably disposed to the conservative national security agenda?

Amazingly, I have yet to see a public opinion poll that has asked respondents about preemptive self-defense capabilities and an accompanying increase in defense spending, but I suspect that elite opinion is more favorably predisposed to preemptive self-defense and the other planks of the LDP subcommittee's program than the public at large. The latest public opinion polls on the alliance — mentioned in this post — recorded growing public unease about the alliance, but it is unlikely that public unease matches that found among elites. Is the public so much more afraid of North Korea and abandonment by the US in the face of North Korean threats today than in October 2006 that it is willing to sign off on the conservative agenda? Not, I suspect, if the public sees the price tag.

Could the Asō government tie the hands of a potential DPJ government on this question? I suspect not. If the government takes steps in the waning weeks of its tenure to include subcommittee's program into the NDPG, the DPJ may be inclined to delay the NDPG in order to start from scratch, so to leave its own stamp on the program.

Of course, the DPJ may in fact be open to preemption, if not to greater military spending in the near term. Autonomous defense capabilities geared to preemptive self-defense flow logically from the DPJ's rhetoric on defense and the US-Japan alliance.

But ultimately the DPJ will be bound by the public — and the public may not be willing to commit to drastic changes in Japan's defense posture, North Korea's saber rattling and doubts about the US commitment notwithstanding. A DPJ-led government, desperate to consolidate its power and likely dependent on the SDPJ, will hardly be more able to implement far-reaching changes to Japanese security policy than Asō and the LDP, hobbled by intra-party divisions, its dependence on Komeitō, and dismal public approval figures.

It is far from inevitable that Asō and the hawks will get their way.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: