The Magazine

Honest Abe

Japan's next prime minister is forthright about his country's global role.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN
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Which method Japan pursues to clarify its position on collective self-defense is not just a matter of splitting legal hairs. As Pyongyang tries to develop the ability to strike the American homeland with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, Japan's current stance on collective self-defense would prohibit using its AEGIS-equipped destroyers or the X-band radar that is under construction to intercept a ballistic missile on track to strike the United States. The alliance would not survive such a debacle, and no Japanese military commander should be put in the position of having to choose between violating his constitution and betraying an ally when the missiles fly.

The other oft-cited obstacle to closer cooperation between the United States and Japan is the latter's defense budget. It is currently capped at one percent of GDP, a figure that confounds Tokyo's efforts to modernize its self-defense forces. Additionally, this modest defense budget interferes with Japan's efforts to shift its posture toward the defense of territories along the western portion of the Japanese archipelago, and to participate in more coalition operations abroad.

This is another area where the prospects for change on Abe's watch will be significantly enhanced. A little acknowledged fact is that while Koizumi earned strong reformer credentials, he also maintained a career-long alliance with the Ministry of Finance and never challenged its prerogatives in setting the national and defense budgets.

Abe, having made his career in foreign and defense policy, is in a stronger position to challenge the Finance Ministry and push for a more realistic military budget. If Abe makes progress rewriting Article 9 of Japan's constitution, or the CLB revises its view on collective self-defense, the next prime minister will have a major opportunity to recalculate Japan's defense budget in accordance with its newly acknowledged international responsibilities.

While Abe's recent statements have clarified his likely approach to Japan's most pressing issues, there remains sufficient room in his stated positions for him to address each with varying degrees of discretion. In short, he is poised to consolidate and build on the progress that Koizumi's government has made toward Japan's emergence as a normal nation.

Christopher Griffin is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.