A “reborn Japan” under Shinzo Abe

As Typhoon Lan, a mammoth Category 2 storm, was dumping heavy rains and whipping 165 kilometers per hour winds through Japan, Japanese citizens went to the polls on Sunday, Oct. 22, to show their support for Shinzo Abe and gave the incumbent Prime Minister a landslide win in a snap election.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito won a combined 312 seats in the Oct. 22 general election, giving Abe the two-thirds “supermajority” in the 465-member lower house and a strong mandate to lead the country through 2021.

LDP extended the term limit for party leaders in March, a rule change that would empower Shinzo Abe to serve a third consecutive three-year term as LDP president until September 2021, and also making him the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, surpassing Taro Katsura, who was Japanese prime minister for eight years in the early 20th century.

With a “supermajority” in both houses of parliament now secured, Abe is set to press ahead with his constitutional reform and has established a 2020 deadline for revising Article 9 in Japan’s pacifist constitution to legitimize the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), “I strongly wish,” announced Abe at the 70th Anniversary of the Japanese Constitution, “to make 2020 the year that the reborn Japan will make a new start.”

The Article 9 of the 1947 Japanese Constitution outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes involving Japan. In its text, Japan officially renounces its “sovereign right of belligerency” and aims at an international peace based on justice and order.” The Article 9 also states that, to accomplish these aims, “armed forces with war potential will not be maintained.”

However, “Japanese Self-Defense Force,” according to Michael Fitzpatrick of Fortune, “is one of the world’s most sophisticated armed forces.” Ranked the fourth most powerful military in the world, JSDF is extremely well equipped, with the fourth largest submarine fleet and four aircraft carriers. “Pilot for pilot, ship for ship,” says John Kuehn at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, “Japan can stand toe to toe with anybody.”

“Add to this the knowledge that Japan could be nuclear capable given six months should its leaders wish it,” writes Fitzpatrick, “Japan could quickly become one of the top military powers in the world. All it would take for the planet’s third-richest nation is to stick its collective head above the parapet and cease being invisible.”

Prime Minister Abe’s “reborn Japan” will have far-reaching implications for China and North Korea.

“Having won the election and consolidated his power base,” writes Ivan Tselichtchev at Japan’s Niigata University, “Abe will feel more confident pushing his own agenda on the foreign policy front, with China relations being a major pillar. Fundamentally, Abe’s approach to China is tough, if not outright hawkish. He represents the school of thought in Japan that sees the emergence of a strong China as a threat rather than an opportunity. As a result, he is expected to do more to offset China’s growing influence. He will strengthen Japan’s links with the United States to curb China’s activities in the East and South China Seas and to send a stronger message to Beijing that Japan will never compromise on a range of bilateral issues, including the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, known in Japan as the Senkakus.”

Abe also sees North Korea as “an unprecedented, serious and grave threat to Japan.” North Korea has tested more than 20 missiles in 2017 and two of them flew across Japanese territory. “While these present a security threat for South Korea and the U.S.,” writes Sandip Mishra of Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Japan might be North Korea’s first potential target. Pyongyang’s threats to the U.S. remain more in the realm of rhetoric than reality. Similarly, Pyongyang is not expected to attack Seoul as South Korean President Moon Jae-in has extended several olive branches to Kim Jong-un. North Korea’s most likely target thus appears to be Japan.”

Currently, under the Article 9 of the 1947 constitution, JSDF “can bomb anyone landing on one of Japan’s main islands,” says Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, “but they can’t strike North Korean missile sites.” Abe’s constitutional reform will not only give JSDF the power to defend, but also the freedom to strike back.

Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is on its way to become a full-fledged military power, a power that no one can ignore.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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