Battle stations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2006, 12:00am

It is hard to imagine Shinzo Abe with his finely coiffed head sticking out of the top of a tank turret in the style of many politicians in the past. Mr Abe - the conservative blue-blood now widely expected to become Japan's new prime minister next month - is known for a bearing that is more regal than military.

Yet it is military issues that could in part significantly define his rule, according to analysts. Mr Abe is set to replace outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at a time of great uncertainty and debate about Japan's future military role. The strategic assumptions that have formed the bedrock of security in northeast Asia for the past five decades are under challenge amid China's rise and the volatile belligerence of North Korea.

In his jockeying for position among the conservative elite of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Mr Abe has staked himself out as a hawk. He has forged a populist public image by being tough on North Korea over a range of issues. He has also repeatedly stated that the pacifist constitution - which has guided Japan's defence and foreign policies since the end of the second world war - must change.

On Tuesday he was at it again, saying that whoever replaced the moderate Mr Koizumi must 'exercise leadership' by revising the document drafted by US occupiers after the second world war. 'It's been 61 years since the end of [the war] and we need to start working towards creating a Japan that's suitable for the 21st century,' Mr Abe said. The constitution enshrines a self-defensive military posture, limiting the country's international combat involvement.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Abe has the political courage to show that leadership in a country long used to its pacifism and the relatively light defence spending that it has fostered.

Mr Abe's grandfather was a conservative prime minister and his father a former secretary-general of the LDP. Although his rise has had an air of inevitability about it, his mettle and experience continue to be questioned.

Observers say the constitutional change is just one factor affecting military policies - and, potentially, their spending. A recent landmark agreement that will enhance Japan's operational roles within its strategic alliance with the US and expand missile defence plans threatens to expand budgetary demands. Washington has long been keen to drag Japan into an even tighter military alliance to ensure greater Japanese involvement in both intelligence and military operations. It is also backing the constitutional moves to place Japan on a more normal military footing.

Then there are the rising fears over last month's North Korean test firings, when seven missiles crashed into the Sea of Japan (known to Koreans as the East Sea). The fear and concern is palpable across Tokyo's political elites. Reports at the weekend that Pyongyang is preparing for an underground nuclear test have ratcheted up the tension even further.

The fears have sparked fresh debate about whether Japan should arm itself with Tomahawk-style cruise missiles capable of striking strategic targets in North Korea - talk inconceivable just a few years ago.

The Tomahawk is a conventional weapon produced by the US at the height of the cold war to broaden its non-nuclear attack options. The US is the natural supplier, but some commentators suggest that Japan should be prepared to develop their own or source them from outside the US. Mr Abe has played his own role in stoking that particular debate. Within days of the missile tests, he warned that Japan should have the ability to target North Korean missile bases.

The call sparked howls of concern across the region, with Mr Abe's remarks widely interpreted as a demand for pre-emptive strikes. Japanese envoys have spent the past few weeks hosing down the controversy, insisting to foreign counterparts that Mr Abe never used the phrase 'pre-emptive'.

Instead, they said, he was merely talking about what Japan should be able to do if it was under attack - in theory no breach of the existing constitution. They stressed that Japan had no such capability. For some, however, the image of a more militarily assertive Japan lingers.

'We are going through a fascinating period,' one diplomat said in Tokyo. 'Mr Abe is talking up a storm as he tries to show himself as leadership potential, and all kinds of things are now being debated that wouldn't have surfaced just a few years ago.

'The trouble is we don't yet know whether Mr Abe is going to convert this into political action once in power. That is going to be a lot more difficult. Certainly the US is quietly worried that Japan is going to struggle to meet its existing commitments unless work is done to expand military spending. Domestically, that is a really tough issue and we are not sure Mr Abe has got it in him.'

For years, Japan - the world's second-biggest economy - has spent about 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on the military, a proportion dwarfed by China and the US. Its spending has even declined under the fiscal austerity of Mr Koizumi's five years in power. And Mr Abe has consistently advocated slashing spending rather than raising taxes to ease Japan's deficits.

Robyn Lim, a professor of international relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya, said she could not see how Japan could continue to get by with such a low level of military spending.

Aside from high-profile issues such as missile defence, a jobs-for-life tradition means increasingly high personnel costs. Japan's defence contracts tend to be filled by Japanese firms, despite the expense. Ms Lim said it was too early to say which way Mr Abe would go on a number of issues once in power, but the wider strategic direction was clear.

'Japan is about to make a sharp right turn ... because of North Korea's dangerous nuclear and missile brinkmanship and because of China's steady military buildup,' she said.

Speaking privately, Japanese government officials described the military budget issue as a 'debate we need to have'.

'It is definitely something the political elites should be thinking ... but politically it is a very unpleasant thing to think about,' one official said. 'The Japanese people are too used to spending very little on their military.'

Foreign ministry spokesman Noriyuki Shikata said there was at present no such plan. 'At this juncture, it is difficult to predict whether emerging new security environments in East Asia will lead to [an] increase in defence spending over the next decade,' Mr Shikata said. The government was aware of the need to maintain its deterrence capabilities under the US-Japan security alliance despite the tight fiscal situation.

Mr Shikata outlined a 'diversified and complex' set of long-term threats against Japan but stopped short of singling out China. 'The possibility of invasion of Japan is deemed less likely nowadays, but in the Asia-Pacific region, there still remain sources of conflicts, and military buildups and modernisations are taking place,' he said.

North Korea's development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles were 'serious sources of instability for Asia-Pacific security'. China was not deemed a military threat at the moment, but Mr Shikata noted its double-digit increases in military spending during the past 18 years. 'Modernisation of military capability in [China] is expected to continue, and we need to follow the future development carefully.'

The conservative cliques surrounding Mr Abe are more blunt. They say China is driving much of their strategic thinking.

And they say that Mr Abe is the leader who is finally ready to put Japan on a new, stronger footing.