On 17 December the Japanese government issued three national security documents: the first-ever National Security Strategy (which explains overall foreign policy strategy), the National Defense Program Outline, and the Mid-term Defense Plan (which together describe military strategy and force structure planning for the near-term).
The National Security Strategy promises proactive peace and outlines a clear strategy of closer alignment with other maritime democracies and states in the Pacific. The defence documents point to a 1.7% increase in defense spending per year (important given overall budget pressures in the West), and a shift towards air and naval capabilities (the army will not shrink in numbers, but will have to live with half as many tanks).
Meanwhile, the Abe Government has launched Japan's first National Security Council (coinciding interestingly with China's new National Security Committee) and has passed necessary but controversial secrecy legislation in the Diet. In the first half of next year Prime Minister Abe is expected to relax constraints on exercising collective self-defense (the right of Japanese forces to come to the assistance of allies who come under attack while operating together with Japan).
Media reaction has fallen into a facile narrative about the return of Japanese militarism and the bold departure of the nationalist Abe. In fact, Abe's national security agenda builds logically on the direction already set by his predecessor from the Democratic Party of Japan, Yoshihiko Noda, as well as overall efforts to strengthen the role of the prime minister's office in national security going back decades.
Nor is Japan a target of deep suspicion abroad.
The US government has wanted Japan to take many of these measures since the 1950s and the Obama Administration has publicly welcomed Abe's moves as a necessary part of the current effort to revise and update US-Japan defence guidelines. China will oppose Abe for reasons of historical experience, but also because Beijing does not want to see either a more effective US-Japan alliance or a more confident Japan.
Korean views of Abe are negative, but professionals in the Korean military and foreign ministry quietly recognise that their own security depends on the effectiveness of the US-Japan alliance, and that Washington and Tokyo suffer from the lack of jointness that is built into the US-ROK alliance. Still, Abe will have to redouble his efforts to keep Korea on side if he wants his security agenda to accrue to Japan's strategic benefit and not undermine the US and Japanese position in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, 96% of Southeast Asians say they have positive views of Japan.
Of course, Abe will also have to maintain domestic political support, and that will depend on economic performance more than anything. The first two arrows of his 'Abenomics' program (monetary easing and fiscal stimulus) were the easy part and they worked. Now comes the hard slog of reform and restructuring for longer-term economic growth. Abe's LDP is not a reformist party, and he will have his work cut out going beyond the mediocre strategy for reform announced so far. As negotiating partners with Japan in the Trans Pacific Partnership, the US and Australia can each help nudge the LDP towards greater reform and opening.
At CSIS in February, Abe vowed that Japan would never become a 'tier two' player. The US, Australia and other supporters of the neo-liberal order in international affairs have a major stake in Abe's success. We must also recognise that his agenda will make Japan a more effective national security player. If the US strays in Asia, we will see more Japanese hedging and unilateralism. But with a deliberate effort to build greater jointness and interoperability, Washington and the region can benefit from increased Japanese security output.
For more on Abe's national security agenda, please see my new Lowy Institute Analysis paper, Japan is Back: Unbundling Abe's Grand Strategy.