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Japan has transformed its defence policy in recent weeks, with pivotal decisions that push forward Tokyo’s ambitions to play a bigger security role beyond the Indo-Pacific region.
The problem for Japanese leader Fumio Kishida is that the changes, sweeping away traditional pacifist restraint, were barely noticed at home. The Japanese public were far more concerned by their prime minister’s domestic political woes.
This contrast has implications well beyond the sphere of Japanese politics. At stake in this scandal over alleged slush funds is not just Kishida’s political survival, but potentially Japan’s place in the world.
Kishida’s shift in defence policy came days before Christmas. For the first time in almost a decade, the government eased rules on weapons exports to allow several dozen domestically produced Patriot air defence missiles to be shipped to the US.
While Japan will still not be allowed to export arms directly to conflict areas, the revision enabled Tokyo to indirectly support Ukraine’s war against Russia. Shipping Patriot missiles to the US frees up the American stocks, earmarked for the Indo-Pacific, to be sent to Ukraine instead.
Japan’s move on arms exports followed an even more profound shift in its national security policy a year ago, when Kishida ramped up military spending and authorised the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities to address a rising threat from China.
But even as he has unveiled these historic changes, Kishida’s approval rating has plummeted to a record low. Weighing on him now is Japan’s biggest political funding scandal in more than three decades, and the handling of the January 1 earthquake off the west coast that has killed more than 100 people.
At the very moment Kishida presided over the 50th anniversary summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in December, Japanese prosecutors raided the critical political factions of his Liberal Democratic party to investigate allegations that some members concealed political funds. Prosecutors on Sunday made their first arrest related to the scandal, taking into custody a member of the LDP’s largest faction for alleged violation of fundraising law.
The dissonance between Kishida’s troubles at home and the applause he has received from Japan’s allies overseas for its revamped security policies could not be more jarring.
Rahm Emanuel, US ambassador to Japan, has described the speed, scale and scope of Japan’s reforms in the past two years as “unprecedented” in bolstering collective deterrence. “When you add Japan’s regional diplomatic engagement, it defines this era as one of alliance projection from an era of alliance protection,” he said.
If not for the widening funding scandal, the Asean summit in Tokyo would have been the highlight of Kishida’s efforts to deepen security, economic and energy ties with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and other south-east Asian countries, who view Japan’s support as a way to offset China’s increasing regional influence.
Ahead of the event in November, Japan agreed to launch talks for a major defence pact with the Philippines and provide the country’s navy with coastal surveillance radars.
Following repeated travels to the region by Kishida, the Asean summit statement included pledges to uphold values Japan and the US have pushed for, including democracy, rule of law and protection of human rights.
“What Asean countries dislike the most is for a big power to impose its values on them,” said Takeshi Yuzawa, professor at Hosei University. “But support for democratisation cannot be done by China so it is critical for Japan to enhance its presence on this front.”
For months now, even before the funding scandal emerged, US officials and diplomats from other western countries had been asking about who might replace Kishida as his popularity fell. There is even speculation the LDP may appoint Japan’s first female premier to salvage its scandal-hit reputation.
But the biggest question for these diplomats is whether a potential change in leadership would reverse the defence policies set forth by the Kishida administration.
Japanese officials have sought to reassure them that the underlying direction, broadly set during the premiership of the late Shinzo Abe, is unlikely to be reversed even under a new leader. Some analysts also say Kishida may survive the scandal since few would want to take over at a time of political crisis.
Still, Yuzawa points out the policy ambitions, laid out in the Asean summit declaration, will be empty rhetoric unless they are followed by concrete actions. Implementing Japan’s new defence policies, especially against the uncertain backdrop of a US presidential election, will require strong leadership. There is hardly a worse time for Japan to descend into political instability.
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