Abe’s Doctrine:

Less Pacifist? More Proactive?

H. D. P. Envall, Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 3 (Book review 3 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 16 December 2018.

Akimoto, Daisuke (2018) The Abe Doctrine: Japan’s Proactive Pacifism and Security Strategy, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, hardback, ISBN: 978-981-10-7658-9, xv and 246 pages.

Keywords: Japanese foreign and security policy, proactive pacifism, Abe Shinzo.

Japan has without doubt implemented major security reforms under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Less clear perhaps is the direction these reforms are taking the country. Is Abe seeking to move away from Japan’s post-war pacifism and remilitarize instead? Is he turning Japan into a more proactive international player or merely responding to growing regional challenges? Such ambiguities have led to considerable academic debate over Japan’s current strategic trajectory and the nature of a potential ‘Abe Doctrine’, if there is such a thing (e.g. see Kitaoka 2014; Nilsson-Wright and Fujiwara 2015; Hughes 2015; Maslow 2015; Dobson 2016; Easley 2017; Envall 2018). Do Abe’s reforms represent a radical departure for Japan, as Christopher Hughes (2017) argues? Or are Abe’s reforms more evolutionary than revolutionary, as Adam Liff (2015) suggests? It is in this context that Daisuke Akimoto, an academic and policy advisor, has written The Abe Doctrine: Japan’s Proactive Pacifism and Security Strategy. Akimoto seeks to understand whether there is an identifiable ‘Abe Doctrine’ in Japan’s approach to international politics. He is interested in particular in the likely ‘implications and components’ of such a Doctrine and whether it will prove sustainable (p. 3). 

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, The Abe Doctrine is divided into nine chapters (including the introduction and conclusion). Akimoto pursues a broad examination of Abe’s policies, focusing initially on the question of whether Abe’s ‘proactive contribution to peace’ can be viewed as a form of positive pacifism (pp. 9–34). He then offers an in-depth review of the simulation cases considered as part of the legislative program introduced by the Abe government in 2015, before considering the core of the Abe program to date, the adoption of the right to collective self-defence (CSD) (pp. 65–99). In the subsequent three chapters, Akimoto looks at the domestic, bilateral and global implications of the Abe Doctrine, in turn examining Japan’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) policy (pp. 101–23), its relationship with the United States (pp. 125–46), and its peace operations in South Sudan (pp. 147–72). Before concluding, Akimoto returns to the issue of whether these policies, taken together, do represent an emerging new grand strategy (pp. 173–95).

The meaning of Abe’s reforms cannot be found in Abe’s political personality alone but rather should be understood in the wider context of Japan’s changing politics and the worsening of the country’s strategic position (e.g. see Suzuki and Wallace 2018). Abe’s political character is in any case complex and contradictory and might predict a lurch towards nationalism, historical revisionism or international liberalism (e.g. Envall 2011, 2015b). Indeed, a major criticism of a potential Abe Doctrine made by Hughes (2015, 6) is that it contains ‘internal and hence inescapable contradictions’. For instance, even as Abe extols a supposed liberal international order, he venerates Japan’s imperial past and seeks to whitewash Japan’s history in East Asia during the first half of the 20th century. 

Rather than pursue a personality-based approach, Akimoto instead bases his argument on an analysis of the impact of Abe’s reforms across domestic, bilateral and global dimensions. He seeks to place the new security legislation in the historical context of these three dimensions and show how the Abe government has used the legislation to advance and link together Japan’s security policies with respect to domestic techno-security issues, deepening alliance cooperation, and a broadening of Japan’s international security role. From these multiple angles, he argues that Abe’s reforms constitute a ‘new trajectory’ (p. 200) for Japanese grand strategy and a substantial upgrade across Japan’s strategic policies. At the same time, however, he adds a caveat. Abe’s legacy and the future sustainability of an Abe Doctrine may depend upon how Abe pursues further constitutional revision. If Abe takes a radical approach to revision, such as by attempting to scrap Article 9, it is likely that an emerging Abe Doctrine will be a political ‘dead end’ (p. 201). Alternatively, if he succeeds at constitutional revision with a more incremental approach, ‘the legacy of the Abe Doctrine will become unalterably Japan’s grand strategy’ (p. 202).  

Whether Abe needs constitutional revision to secure his legacy is open to debate. Abe’s push partially to recognise Japan’s right to CSD, the focus of the book’s fourth chapter, arguably represents the transformative core of the Abe agenda. In this sense, Abe has already achieved a major shift in Japanese grand strategy, indeed the biggest since Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru and his successors sought to constrain Japan’s security options in the 1950s and 1960s (see Samuels 2007). This time around, however, the objective has been to expand rather than limit Japan’s options, albeit still within some parameters. As such, Abe’s reforms strike something of a midway position in Akimoto’s reading. They fall somewhere between Yoshida’s all-too comprehensive (for the Americans) ‘tying hands’ strategy (Samuels 2007) and an effective free pass to US policy-makers to entrap Japan in American conflicts (see Hughes 2017). 

Will the ‘brakes’ (hadome) Abe has included in the security legislation prove robust enough to forestall US pressure at a time of crisis? Hughes (2017) would point to this as one the Abe Doctrine central contradictions. Even as Abe has viewed greater strategic autonomy as a key goal, he has tied Japan ever closer to the US alliance. Indeed, until 2016, the Abe government had adopted a strongly ‘pro-pivot’ position in response to the ‘rebalance’ strategy pursued by the administration of US President Barack Obama (see Envall 2016, 2017). In fact, a key contradiction identified by Hughes (2015)—Abe’s (2012) emphasis on liberal democracy in his response to greater Chinese assertiveness—was in part an attempt to keep in step with shifting US policy. That is, Japan was following the Obama administration’s objective, under the rebalance, of linking together regional allies in not only geopolitical but also normative terms (Twining 2007; Tow and Envall 2011). Abe’s pro-alliance stance also represented a reversal of the earlier attempt by the Democratic Party of Japan to move away from the US in the wake of the global financial crisis (see Envall 2015a). Now, however, it is proving problematic, as Japan seeks to manage its alliance relationship with the US under President Donald Trump’s intemperate and unpredictable leadership. 

The Abe Doctrine’s main strength lies in the richness of the detail and description of the legislative reforms implemented by the Abe government, especially during the period between 2014 and 2015. On the other hand, the book’s central argument (p. 3) could benefit from further development. It struggles to separate out policy objectives (components) from outputs (implications) and does not convincingly explain why an Abe Doctrine should be viewed as a coherent grand strategy. Akimoto is right to argue (p. 66), however, that the Diet proceedings surrounding the passage of the Peace and Security Legislation tend not to be the focus of analysis.  He notes that much work was done before the parliamentary proceedings, while other studies give more attention to the wider societal debates (e.g. see Ishiba 2014; Hasebe and Sugita 2015; Mark 2016). As such, this book helps fill in a gap in the literature.

Indeed, Akimoto’s account of the debates surrounding this legislation (pp. 74–86) reveals both the highly controversial nature of the reforms and a certain sense of unreality. Legal opinions—generally that the laws were unconstitutional—were freely given with little indication that they would ever be tested. The government’s argument that the laws were constitutional rested explicitly on the judiciary having absented itself from decisions on national security (as established in the 1959 Sunagawa case) (e.g. p. 77). It then further relied on the post-war practice of the executive establishing a ‘unified government interpretation’ (tōitsu kenkai) regarding the constitutionality of security policy (Samuels 2007, 51; see also Samuels 2004; Boyd and Samuels 2005). Through its cabinet decision of July 2014 (Government of Japan 2014), Abe government merely continued the gradual loosening of the executive’s interpretation of these matters, even as it asserted that its decisions were consistent with past understandings (p. 77). It did so, in particular, by giving greater weight than had previously allowed to the balance between Article 9 (prohibiting ‘war potential’) and Article 13 (on the people’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). According to the government, in view of Japan’s deteriorating strategic environment, the needs of Article 13, and the prospect of a ‘survival threatening situation’ (p. 90), now outweighed previously strict interpretations of Article 9. That the Abe government adopted this approach reconfirms the assessment of Boyd and Samuels (2005, 6) that ‘judicial passivity’ is ‘the norm’ in Japan. Untilthe Supreme Court chooses otherwise, it is the executive’s tōitsu kenkaiwhich will remain the paramount interpretation of Article 9. 

A similar unreality existed in the debates surrounding the 15 simulation cases for the security legislation. Again, in great detail and based on in-depth research, Akimoto explains how the different simulation cases relate to the new security legislation and Article 9. Cases 8 to 15 are especially significant, given that they cover the scenarios most likely to raise CSD questions, such as ballistic missile interception or the protection of US vessels (pp. 48–57). The key issue for many of these cases is whether Japan’s national survival would be at stake. However, as Hughes (2017, 118) notes, the Japanese government has offered no ‘objective criteria’ to define what this means. This, he suggests, leaves the executive with ‘ample room to pursue its own interpretations’ (Hughes 2017, 118). Given the aforementioned ‘judicial passivity’, it is highly improbable that the Supreme Court would seek to second-guess the executive on this matter. Instead, any interpretation of national survival will most likely be left to the cabinet’s ‘overall judgement’ (Hughes 2017, 118). 

The manner in which these debates proceeded also raises doubts not only as to the pacifism supposedly embedded in the Abe Doctrine but also the degree of proactiveness. Akimoto rightly questions the extent to which Abe’s reforms align with notions of pacifism and peace, particularly the idea of positive peace (the absence of structural violence) used by Johan Galtung (1969) and usually translated with the same terminology as Abe’s ‘proactive contribution to peace’ (sekkyokuteki heiwashugi). He suggests that, although they ‘politically overlap’ in certain fields, they are ‘fundamentally different as theoretical and analytical concepts’ (p. 28). Indeed, the extent to which military normalisation and deterrence feature in the Abe Doctrine point to the strong realist currents running through the Abe government’s strategic thinking, notwithstanding the pacifist branding (see Auslin 2016; Envall 2018).  At the same time, it is also possible to conclude from Akimoto’s overview of the 15 simulation cases that the chief underlying feature of the Abe Doctrine is not its proactiveness but its reactivity. Whereas the 2013 National Security Strategy sets out the government’s security vision in a ‘multifaceted and coordinated manner’ (see Government of Japan 2013, 1), this side of Japan’s security transformation – the nuts and bolts of the Abe Doctrine – is focused on concrete matters such as responding to attacks, coming to the aid of personnel under threat, intercepting missiles and in general reacting to crises as they arise. From this perspective, it is a middle-power strategy aimed at coping with, rather than directing, the region’s rapidly shifting power dynamics.

Overall, The Abe Doctrine offers valuable insights into the processes, concrete details and basic workings of Japan’s security transformation under Prime Minister Abe, even if it is less clear on explaining Abe’s agenda as grand strategy. The book is well-researched and clearly laid out, although it is marred at times by awkward phrasing. Abstracts for each chapter might also have been usefully omitted to give the book a greater sense of coherence. Nonetheless, with its detailed account of the country’s security transformation over the past few years, the book makes a significant contribution to current debates over Japan’s emerging Abe Doctrine.  


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About the Author

H. D. P. Envall is a Fellow/Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at The Australian National University. David received his BA (Hons) and PhD from the University of Melbourne and his MA from Hitotsubashi University. In addition to having worked as a copy editor and corporate editor/writer, he has taught on Japan’s international relations at Tokyo International University and on politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University. His research interests include Japanese political leadership, Japan’s post-war security politics, and security in the Asia-Pacific. His latest article is ‘The “Abe Doctrine”: Japan’s New Regional Realism’.

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