William Hobart is Lowy Institute International Security intern and an AIIA NSW Councillor.

Japanese policy-makers are alarmed about China, but they still struggle to channel this concern into support for constitutional reform. Concern over Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s ‘hawkish’ designs for the nation’s Self Defense Force may be premature, as he faces significant obstacles within the Diet, his own party and in rallying public opinion.

Abe’s aspirations to reform the constitution (both Article 9 to allow collective self-defence and Article 96 to lower the threshold for constitutional reform from two-thirds to a simple parliamentary majority) is driven by a rising China. But the initial security jolt occurred over 20 years ago with the first Gulf War, when Japan was accused of using chequebook diplomacy to compensate for its strategic weakness.

Since then, to hedge against China and the DPRK, and to increase its share of the security burden with the US, Japan has slowly but consistently reinterpreted the constitutional limits of what it can do with its Self Defense Force. Japan has also increased its military capacity through acquisitions such as in-air refueling aircraft and large amphibious ships.

Yet despite Abe’s rhetoric and the decadal trends in JSDF ‘normalisation’, still only 3% of respondents to a Mainichi poll in July said that constitutional reform should be on the policy agenda. By comparison, the economy rated as the top priority with 35% of the vote. Moreover, when asked if Japan should include collective self-defence in the constitution, only 27% of respondents expressed support and 59% were opposed.

For Abe, the story is not much better in the Diet. Despite the LDP holding a majority in both houses, only 52% of upper house respondents said they would support lowering the threshold to constitutional reform to a simple majority. With regards to amending Article 9 to state the right to self-defence and establish a national military, 48% of Upper House members expressed support. This figure went up to 50% if there was ‘momentum’ (meaning public support) on the issue, but still falls short of the two-thirds majority needed.

Public support for constitutional change is yet to align with the all-time low in sentiment towards China since polling commenced in 2005. In this year's poll just over 90% of Japanese respondents had either an 'unfavourable' or 'relatively unfavourable' impression of China, up from 84.5% in 2012 (equally, 92.8% of Chinese respondents had an unfavourable impression of Japan, up from 64.5%; majorities on both sides cited the territorial dispute as the main reason for their impression).

The challenge for Abe and Japanese politicians that come after him will be bridging the gap between zero-sum concern over an assertive China and taking the plunge into constitutional reform. If Abe is successful in championing economic recovery and achieves sustained popular support, he may also be able to mobilise Japanese society into supporting reform to the constitution to respond to a rising China.

But the story of Japanese military ‘normalisation’ didn’t start with Abe, and given the still insufficient levels of support needed for constitutional change, it is unlikely to end with him either.

Photo by Flickr user Jrim.