Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.07.07

The gap between Japan’s parties and voters on national security is widening

With the prolonged war in Ukraine, the Japanese mindset on security appears to be changing

the japan times on June 23, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy

A famous maxim associated with former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and which is arguably universal, was “all politics is local.”

Like in the United States, national security issues have rarely been at the top on Japan’s electoral agenda since the 1970s.

The Upper House election scheduled for July 10 seems to be an exception to the rule.

The prolonged war in Ukraine is surely changing the Japanese mindset on security. According to recent polls — and to my pleasant surprise — national security is the second most important issue for voters in the upcoming election.

Nonetheless, the sensitivity of the nation’s political leaders, especially those in the opposition camp, may not be as responsive as those of the voters.

Ahead of the official kickoff of the Upper House election campaigns, leaders of nine ruling and opposition parties recently held a debate at the Japan Press Club in Tokyo, where they talked about issues ranging from inflation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as constitutional reform.

What was most disappointing in the debate was the lack of serious discussion on national security issues. As the Sankei Shimbun’s editorial board wrote: “Although the defense budget was addressed, they never discussed why Japan needs a defense buildup in the first place. None of the party leaders pointed out the harsh security environment surrounding Japan and talked about each party’s security policy.”

Japan can’t afford to be tone deaf to reality. The global security landscape has rapidly evolved since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. And yet, the Japanese — politicians and their constituents alike — appear to be indulging in domestic fundraising and campaigning while failing to identify the subtle yet important changes in the narratives of international politics.

I have been particularly interested in the future Sino-Russia relations and the national security priority of the United States. In this regard, three recent articles drew my attention. The first one was a Bloomberg article on June 16 titled “China, Russia Give Differing Accounts of Xi-Putin Phone Call,” comparing two different narratives that Beijing and Moscow gave and are trying to propagate.

According to Bloomberg, the Kremlin’s version of the call said the two leaders “discussed increasing economic cooperation, trade and military-technical ties” and implied that the Chinese leader endorsed Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine by noting the “legitimacy of Russia’s actions in protecting its fundamental national interests in the face of security challenges created by external forces.”

The Beijing version, by contrast, said that President Xi Jinping “actively promoted world peace and the stability of the global economic order” and pushed all parties to find “a proper settlement to the Ukraine crisis in a responsible manner,” making no mention of military ties or increasing trade links with Russia. This simply means that China wishes to neither confirm nor deny its support for Moscow.

The second article was a May 30 guest opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Russia or China? The U.S. Has a Choice to Make,” by Zachary Karabell. He criticized the Biden administration’s posture toward China by hinting that it is Russia rather than China that represents the most potent and determined threat to the American-championed world order.

“Rather than cast China as our next great enemy,” the former investment banker claimed, “American security would be better served by the realization that Russia’s behavior only highlights the ways that China and the United States remain bound to each other despite their tensions. We should nurture rather than endanger these ties, which are crucial for both countries to remain prosperous, stable and secure.”

He even urged U.S. President Joe Biden to “tone down the rhetoric, such as lifting Donald Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods in return for Beijing’s reduced support for Putin.”

Does Karabell really believe that China will reduce its support for Russia in return for the U.S. lifting tariffs? He must be either naive or very optimistic. I haven’t read such a short-sighted, nonstrategic and economically motivated argument in years.

The third and the most reassuring article was a June 15 piece in The New York Times. It was titled “The U.S. Is Losing Its Military Edge in Asia, and China Knows It,” and was written by Ashley Townshend and James Crabtree. This piece, authored by two seasoned experts on Indo-Pacific security affairs, constituted a perfect rebuttal to Karabell’s misguided conclusion.

Their argument was simple and crystal clear: “Mr. Biden’s team ended the lengthy and costly U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but that has not freed up many resources for the Indo-Pacific. Washington must not lose sight of the fact that China is a far greater security threat than Russia, now and in the long term.”

To turn things around, they noted, “the United States must prioritize the threat from China, reinforce its military strength in Asia and provide Australia, Japan and India more sophisticated military and technological capabilities to bolster a strategy of collective defense.” Their argument is a typical example that in times of instability, strategic rationale overrides economic rationale.

The above only represents some of the arguments that pundits are making outside Japan when its political leaders are busy campaigning for the Upper House election next month.

All politics may be local. Sometimes, however, real politics can be international as well. Now is that time.

What is deeply concerning is that the perception gap between some of Japan’s political party leaders and its general public over the issue of national security may be widening rather than narrowing.

The voters in Japan seem to be feeling, if not voicing, the significant changes in the strategic reality in the Indo-Pacific region. If so, it is high time for the politicians to voice such sentiments as well.