A National Security Strategy for New Japanese Prime Minister Suga

 In Japan, Environment

Japan is incre­men­tal­ly becom­ing more of a con­se­quen­tial inter­na­tion­al actor amidst an increas­ing­ly com­plex inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty envi­ron­ment, and so Tokyo con­comi­tant­ly faces a greater array of nation­al secu­ri­ty chal­lenges requir­ing nimble and effec­tive pol­i­cy­mak­ing. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, there will be no hon­ey­moon period during which he can com­fort­ably settle into his new job. There is no doubt that Suga is a highly effec­tive policy coor­di­na­tor, but he will need to draw upon the nation­al secu­ri­ty exper­tise of other senior offi­cials in for­mu­lat­ing and exe­cut­ing a nation­al secu­ri­ty agenda for Japan — irre­spec­tive of whether he proves to be a tran­si­tion­al figure, or a trans­for­ma­tion­al one. 

The highly capa­ble incom­ing chief cab­i­net sec­re­tary, Kato Katsunobu, is famil­iar with nation­al secu­ri­ty and defense budget issues, for which he was respon­si­ble at one point as a finance min­istry offi­cial. Additionally, the new defense min­is­ter, Nobuo Kishi, while not a high-pro­file strate­gic thinker pre­sum­ably has a direct con­duit to his broth­er, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. However, nation­al secu­ri­ty expert Taro Kono has been effec­tive­ly side­lined, and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi is better known for nego­ti­at­ing trade agree­ments than for nation­al secu­ri­ty policy plan­ning. This makes it all the more imper­a­tive for Suga’s admin­is­tra­tion to under­take a pru­dent real­i­ty check and pos­si­ble rebal­anc­ing of its nation­al secu­ri­ty agenda now, rather than simply to assert that the Japanese gov­ern­ment will con­tin­ue the Abe administration’s poli­cies nom­i­nal­ly based on this year’s National Security Strategy, with­out any real reflec­tion or fore­thought. Otherwise, Japan will revert to reflex­ive­ly respond­ing to inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ments as they occur, rather than dri­ving or influ­enc­ing them.

In con­sid­er­ing Japan’s nation­al secu­ri­ty agenda, over­lay­ing more tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty issues is of course the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, a transna­tion­al secu­ri­ty threat that knows no bor­ders and com­pels a new approach to inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion. In his pre-record­ed speech to the UN General Assembly to be pre­sent­ed September 25, Suga will empha­size Japan’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in COVAX Facility, an inter­na­tion­al frame­work intend­ed to “accel­er­ate the devel­op­ment and man­u­fac­ture of coro­n­avirus vac­cines, and to guar­an­tee fair and equi­table access for every coun­try in the world.” The United States, China, and Russia have declined to par­tic­i­pate, afford­ing Japan the chance to exer­cise a greater lead­er­ship role, if Suga will take it. Suga will also dis­cuss Japan’s pro­vid­ing Y100 bil­lion ($956 mil­lion) FY2020 for med­ical equip­ment for coun­tries whose med­ical sys­tems are facing stress in con­tend­ing with coro­n­avirus, anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty for Japan to demon­strate inter­na­tion­al lead­er­ship. 

The new empha­sis on transna­tion­al secu­ri­ty threats does noth­ing to negate more tra­di­tion­al nation­al secu­ri­ty issues, how­ev­er. Top agenda items for Suga to con­sid­er include: 

Promotion of the Indo-Pacific strat­e­gy. Abe’s sig­na­ture nation­al secu­ri­ty ini­tia­tive, Japan has under­tak­en to strength­en a net­work of mar­itime states as a means of coun­ter­bal­anc­ing China’s increas­ing­ly assertive strate­gic pos­ture. Abe’s per­son­al ini­tia­tive and lead­er­ship has been the dri­ving force, most recent­ly demon­strat­ed by Japan sign­ing an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with India. While not par­tic­u­lar­ly glam­orous, an ACSA is an impor­tant build­ing block of inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion. To put things in per­spec­tive, Japan’s ACSA with the United States ger­mi­nat­ed in 1989 and only bloomed in 1996, despite the inher­ent logic of allow­ing treaty allies to supply fuel, parts and main­te­nance to each other’s forces as prac­ti­ca­ble. With India, this modest if sig­nif­i­cant step became a real­i­ty in no small mea­sure owing to PM Abe’s ambi­tious pur­suit of per­son­al diplo­ma­cy with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It remains to be seen how effec­tive­ly Suga will be able to con­tin­ue Abe’s Indo-Pacific ini­tia­tive, but this should be atop his nation­al secu­ri­ty agenda. Suga’s seem­ing lack of enthu­si­asm for revis­ing Article 9 of Japan’s con­sti­tu­tion, while more sym­bol­ic than sub­stan­tive, may be a har­bin­ger of his taking his foot off the gas pedal on the Indo-Pacific strat­e­gy as well. 

Rebalancing the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japan’s force pos­ture. Abe made great strides in “nor­mal­iz­ing” Japan’s alliance rela­tions with the United States, includ­ing through 2016 leg­is­la­tion allow­ing the Self Defense Force to assist U.S. forces under attack. His per­son­al diplo­ma­cy with President Donald Trump helped Japan avoid the intense­ly con­flict­ual nego­ti­a­tions Korea is expe­ri­enc­ing over Host Nation Support for U.S. forces, a feat Suga may find dif­fi­cult to repli­cate. Abe also man­aged U.S. basing issues effec­tive­ly enough to min­i­mize fric­tion with the United States. Suga needs to con­tin­ue this momen­tum, which means he needs to act rapid­ly to cul­ti­vate a close rela­tion­ship with the winner of the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Otherwise, we may see a dete­ri­o­ra­tion of close U.S.-Japan ties, much as when the Ron-Yasu rela­tion­ship was sup­plant­ed by the inef­fec­tu­al Ron-Noboru one. 

Suga should effec­tive­ly uti­lize the National Security Council system Abe imple­ment­ed lest deci­sion-making devolve into siloed fief­doms. He also needs to pursue more stren­u­ous­ly the Japanese Government’s abil­i­ty to manage and pro­tect clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion if Japan ever hopes to join the “Five Eyes” intel­li­gence-shar­ing col­lec­tive. It may not be too late to revis­it the pre­cip­i­tous can­cel­la­tion of AEGIS Ashore or to pursue an effec­tive alter­na­tive, and Suga should seize that oppor­tu­ni­ty. And given the grow­ing threat from North Korean and Chinese mis­siles, he should not allow debate about a pre­emp­tive con­ven­tion­al mis­sile strike capa­bil­i­ty to wither on the vine. All that notwith­stand­ing, con­tin­u­ing the momen­tum of Abe’s efforts to rebal­ance the alliance and mod­ern­ize Japan’s force pos­ture may be a chal­lenge for Suga, given his reput­ed close­ness to coali­tion part­ner Komeito. 

Engaging in strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion with China. As China and the United States con­tin­ue their slide towards an overt Manichean strug­gle, Beijing will be increas­ing­ly moti­vat­ed to warm up to Tokyo in an effort to soften allied resolve and avoid encir­clement. It will be tempt­ing for Suga to be respon­sive; China is Japan’s largest trad­ing part­ner after all. Moreover, the fac­tion-less Suga may be reliant on the con­tin­ued sup­port of LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, long an advo­cate of closer Japan-China eco­nom­ic ties, who backed Suga for prime min­is­ter. China’s blan­d­ish­ments may include greater pan­dem­ic coop­er­a­tion, ame­lio­ra­tion of Chinese provo­ca­tions around the Senkaku Islands, and of course putting a Xi Jinping visit to Tokyo back on track. 

While it would be impru­dent for Suga to rebuff China’s over­tures, he should mean­while remain firmly focused on close coop­er­a­tion with Washington vis-à-vis chal­lenges posed by China across the board, includ­ing the future of the dig­i­tal econ­o­my and its impact on nation­al secu­ri­ty and soci­ety; abuse of facial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy and social credit scores; inter­na­tion­al “social dis­tanc­ing” from China with regard to sen­si­tive supply chains; Beijing’s influ­ence cam­paigns and elec­tion inter­fer­ence; cyber­at­tacks and IP theft; human rights abuses, includ­ing in Xinjiang and Hong Kong; and of course China’s mil­i­tary buildup and provoca­tive mil­i­tary pos­tur­ing in the South China Sea and Senkakus, inter alia.

Improving atmos­pher­ics with South Korea. Suga has taken a tough stance toward South Korea, but the change in admin­is­tra­tion can allow both sides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lower the tem­per­a­ture in their rela­tion­ship, even in the absence of any new sub­stan­tive or inno­v­a­tive poli­cies. Suga should attempt to bring the United States into the mix when­ev­er prac­ti­ca­ble, to serve as a buffer and help smooth com­mu­ni­ca­tion. He should also attempt to reviv­i­fy lower-level con­sul­ta­tions with Seoul. Suga might also inti­mate to President Moon Jae-in that greater sup­port would be appre­ci­at­ed from Seoul on Japanese abductees in North Korea. 

Putting North Korea and Russia nego­ti­a­tions on the back burner. Suga should face the fact that two of Abe’s least suc­cess­ful ini­tia­tives con­cerned efforts to retrieve either the Japanese abductees from North Korea or the Northern Territories from Russia. Abe’s offers to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un fell on deaf ears, and his inten­sive diplo­ma­cy with Russian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has amount­ed to little beyond the alle­vi­a­tion of polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic pres­sure Japan might have brought to bear. Japan estab­lished two-plus-two format secu­ri­ty talks with Russia, nor­mal­ly reserved for close allies; and Japan was the only G7 coun­try not to expel Russian intel­li­gence offi­cers fol­low­ing the attempt­ed murder of Sergei Skripal in March 2018. In return for such moves, Tokyo received noth­ing but ephemer­al good­will, if that. Frankly, nei­ther North Korea nor Russia has any incen­tive other than to dangle these incen­tives before PM Suga’s nose with­out actu­al­ly offer­ing up any­thing tan­gi­ble. The new prime min­is­ter would do well to lower expec­ta­tions and place nego­ti­a­tions with North Korea and Russia at the bottom of his nation­al secu­ri­ty agenda. He will have more than enough high-pri­or­i­ty nation­al secu­ri­ty agenda items to keep him fully occu­pied. 

Thomas Cynkin is a Director at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at its Washington DC teach­ing site. He is also a former Foreign Service Officer and was the Asian affairs advi­sor to two U.S. Ambassadors to the U.N. and two Deputy Secretaries of State.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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