When Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announced his surprise resignation on August 28th, shockwaves were felt throughout the entire Japanese political establishment. By the time the dust settled, and Suga Yoshihide had become the new Prime Minister on September 16th, observers were anxious to know - which of his predecessor’s many controversial policies would he keep?
Perhaps nowhere is this anxiety more apparent than in Japan’s defence sector. Not since 1945 has the Japan Self Defence Forces (JSDF) had so staunch a champion as Abe, who has always had a grand vision of building a strengthened and “normalised” Japan.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, first promulgated in 1947, states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” For some six decades, successive Japanese governments have understood this as authorising only a strictly defensive military, and though the capabilities and strength of the JSDF inevitably grew throughout its lifespan, that ultimately defensive nature remained an inviolate shibboleth.
Enter Abe. Since 2006 (with a pause in 2007 to 2012, between his first and second terms) he has steadily worked to expand the scope of the JSDF’s activities. In 2006, the Japan Defence Agency was promoted to becoming the new cabinet-level Ministry of Defence; in 2007, Abe oversaw an amendment of the Self Defence Forces Act which formally authorised operations abroad; most notably, in 2015, he successfully pushed through legislation to authorise the JSDF to operate in collective self defence with regional allies such as the USA and Australia even if Japan itself isn’t directly threatened.
The impact on the military has been more than just legislative. The JSDF has taken its opportunity to expand its arsenal, perhaps most infamously in the form of the Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” - which are, in practice, light aircraft carriers.
Despite the JSDF’s insistence that these ships are purely for defensive purposes, the acquisition of a predominantly offensive platform would have been unthinkable before Abe’s time. Further questions have been raised regarding the Air Self-Defence Force’s intended acquisition of F-35B fighters, which are some of the only fighter aircraft capable of being operated from the Izumo. It can be safely assumed that the JSDF is preparing itself for a future in which it will finally be allowed to perform expeditionary operations without restriction.
So with Abe gone, now what? At first glance, and if Suga’s own statements are to be believed, it seems little will change. The Defence Ministry has sought a budget of 5.4 trillion Yen (£39.7 billion) for the 2021 fiscal year, continuing its seven-year trend of receiving record-breaking budgets. It is also going forward with a program, started under Abe, to procure long range cruise missiles for the Air Self-Defence Force’s growing F-35 fleet.
However, despite Suga’s promises of continuity, it is all but certain that the JSDF will lose at least some of the wind Abe put in its sails. Suga, though a close ideological ally of his predecessor, lacks the same personal drive to rearm the military and assert the nation abroad, preferring instead to grapple with domestic issues; moreover, he is inheriting a country in the midst of a pandemic and resultant economic catastrophe. While Japanese public opinion has long been divided on the idea of expanding the JSDF’s operations, all but the most ardent supporters of rearmament will likely prefer Suga to prioritise matters at home before looking abroad.
As such, while it is likely Suga will continue to support the JSDF, this will inevitably take a backseat to more pressing domestic affairs. Jeffrey Hornung, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, speculates that Suga may find it convenient to focus on initiatives started by Abe, such as revisions to the government’s National Security Strategy. By doing so, Suga would be able to claim to be upholding Abe’s vision while retaining political capital to act more independently in domains he finds more relevant.
The long-term future of the JSDF thus rests on how much of an interest Suga begins to take in defence once Abe’s heirloom policies begin to run dry. Michael Auslin, a distinguished research fellow at the Hoover Institution, takes the view that the behaviour of Japan’s strategic rivals will play a key role in Suga’s own direction. If China and North Korea come forward and try to work with Suga, they may find him less assertive than Abe; if they make no attempt to ease relations or try to exploit Abe’s departure with increased aggression, they may instead force Suga into following his predecessor’s hardline approach.
For the immediate future, continuity does in fact seem to be the order of the day. Barring major provocations from regional adversaries, Suga is unlikely to act on defence with anything approaching the same vigour as Abe; having had its fourteen years in the sun, only time will tell how long the JSDF must endure the shade.