Japan’s Security Policy in the “Abe Era”: Radical Transformation or Evolutionary Shift? (May 2018)
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Widely considered Japan’s most powerful prime minister in decades, Shinzo Abe has responded to a changing security environment in the Asia-Pacific — including an increasingly powerful and assertive China and growing North Korean nuclear threat — by pursuing ambitious and controversial reforms. These have been aimed at strengthening executive control over foreign policy decision-making and bolstering deterrence through an expansion of the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ roles, missions, and capabilities within and beyond the U.S.-Japan alliance. Those reforms that his administration has achieved have invited claims that Abe is taking Japan on a radical path away from its postwar “pacifism.” However, a systematic analysis of both change and continuity during the Abe administration reveals that many of these reforms build on longer-term evolutionary trends that predate Abe and have attracted support from moderates within and outside his conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Just as importantly, several core pillars of Japan’s remarkably self-restrained defense posture remain in place, while Abe has pulled back from some of the more ambitious reforms he has championed in the past. Both points have important implications for Japan’s strategic trajectory, international relations in East Asia, and the U.S.-Japan alliance. Barring major external or domestic political structural change, Japan’s evolutionary reform trajectory is likely to continue. Yet the failure, so far, of Abe’s government to achieve its long-coveted, most ambitious reforms also indicates the persistent headwinds future prime ministers can expect to face.