Reaction: The US

It's win-win, but Abe's approach sparks concerns

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) and Regional Revitalization Minister Shigeru Ishiba (left) react after passing controversial security bills in Tokyo on July 16, 2015.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) and Regional Revitalization Minister Shigeru Ishiba (left) react after passing controversial security bills in Tokyo on July 16, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

The United States will likely welcome the change in the Japanese security laws as it seeks stronger military partners in the region, Washington analysts said. But they added there are now concerns about how Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing the Bills through.

For Washington, the move by Mr Abe to revise the pacifist Constitution simply moves the country closer to being able to fulfil the ambitious defence cooperation guidelines that both sides announced in April, during a landmark visit by the Japanese Prime Minister to the US.

Those guidelines relied on Japan re-interpreting its security laws to allow for a broader range of military activity. They called for the Japanese military to engage in a range of missions outside its own borders, including participating in international missions like arms embargoes and shooting down ballistic missiles aimed at its allies.

Observers have long regarded such a change as a win-win for both the US and Japan.

Tokyo needs to project a stronger military image at a time when China is growing in assertiveness in the region and North Korea remains unpredictable, while the US is seeking more military support in the region as its defence spending continues to shrink.

Where the worries come in is in the way Mr Abe seems to be trying to ram the Bills through despite significant public opposition.

Senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations Sheila A. Smith argues in its Asia blog that the months ahead will be a keen test of Mr Abe's ability to gauge domestic sentiment on Japan's military and Constitution.

"If he pushes too far, too fast, the backlash could seriously impair Japan's ability to provide for its security in a rapidly changing Asia," she wrote.

"On the other hand, stepping back from the defence agenda he has nurtured so carefully could complicate his ability to promote the array of other reforms he has on his agenda."

For Ms Yuki Tatsumi, senior associate of the East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre, Mr Abe's style might limit how much future governments can implement those laws.

"The highly charged and confrontational process through which the law will be debated and passed will have a lasting impact," she wrote in a recent op-ed in The Diplomat.

"At the minimum, the prevailing perception of the ruling coalition steamrolling the opposition will motivate the public to punish the ruling coalition in next year's Upper House election, possibly weakening Abe's political standing. It may also constrain the Japanese government's ability to actually implement these laws long after Abe leaves office."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2015, with the headline 'It's win-win, but Abe's approach sparks concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe