Hostage crisis wasn’t Japan’s 9/11
11 Feb 2015|

DirectionThe dramatic hostage crisis in Syria ended tragically with the execution of two Japanese hostages and a Jordanian pilot by ISIS militants. Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat, described the crisis as a ‘9/11 for Japan’, a sign that the country must face the ‘harsh reality of the world.’ Miyake, along with many Western and Chinese analysts, believes the incident could be a catalyst for Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s security normalisation agenda. But the recent hostage situation is unlikely to be a gamechanger for Japan’s security policy.

While the hostage crisis held global media attention, the public reaction in Japan is a complex consideration. The Japanese left was most actively involved in the issue organising small-scale protests demanding the ransom be paid in exchange for the hostages’ safety, and using the hostage crisis to highlight the challenges of ‘normalisation’. The country’s major left-leaning newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, published an editorial that described Japan’s tradition of pacifism and noninvolvement as the ‘best defense against terrorism’. The left wing contends that it’s Abe’s active security policy in the Middle East that’s led to the hostage crisis.

However the crisis has had little impact on broader public opinion on the Abe government and its security policy. PM Abe’s approval rating was unaffected, standing at 52.8% today compared with 53.5% in December 2014. A recent poll conducted by Kyodo News Network found that over 60% of respondents supported the government’s handling of the crisis. The same poll revealed that 50.3% of respondents believed the government should be cautious about exercising the ‘right of collective self-defense’, compared with 53.1% last December. So it seems an exaggeration to describe the recent hostage crisis as a ‘9/11 for Japan’.

The lack of dramatic public response isn’t a surprise—it’s in line with previous experiences. During the 2013 In Amenas hostage crisis, 10 Japanese employees of an engineering company were killed in crossfire between al-Qaeda-linked militants and the Algerian military. The situation served to draw public attention to the ongoing debate over restrictions on the overseas dispatch of the Japanese Self Defense Force. Soon after, Shigeru Ishiba—Secretary General of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and a known military enthusiast—made the case for Japanese troops to participate in overseas hostage rescue operations. However public shock and political debate during the immediate aftermath of the Algerian hostage crisis didn’t produce any concrete policy changes. Consequently, we need to be a bit more circumspect when conflating the recent IS crisis with policy change in Tokyo.

Economic challenges including inflation, weak growth, and fiscal difficulties suggest that there are few available resources that Tokyo could use in order to participate in counter-IS coalition. Since the ‘economic bubble’ burst in the early 1990s, the Japanese government has found it increasingly difficult to balance soaring expenditure with stagnant government revenue, a fiscal difficulty that’s had a spillover effect into the security domain. For instance, before the deterioration of its fiscal condition Japan was able to make substantial monetary contribution to the US-led coalition during the first Gulf War. Come the early 2000s, difficult fiscal circumstances had made a policy of monetary contributions untenable; the Koizumi administration elected not to donate to the US during the War on Terror.

Two decades later, Japan’s fiscal condition hasn’t improved. According to Japan’s Ministry of Finance, 38.3% of Japanese government income in the 2015 fiscal year depends on the issuance of deficit bonds. That places a serious constraint on Japan’s security strategy. Every iteration of the National Defense Program Outline and the National Defense Program Guidelines since 1995 stresses the severe fiscal constraint on Japan’s security policy, resulting in stagnating defence expenditure for much of the last two decades. In Japan’s 2015 national budget, defence-related expenditure comprises only 5.2% of total budget; at the same time, debt repayment constitutes nearly one-fourth of the entire national budget. Rapid normalisation requiring investment in military hardware as well as personnel is fiscally unviable. The same goes for military operations in the Middle East.

Japan’s primary security interest lies in a stable East Asia, and a hostage crisis in the Middle East is unlikely to trigger a significant policy change. Instead, the Abe administration’s security normalisation project is likely to be subtle and gradual.

Xunchao Zhang is a student from the PRC who studies at the ANU. Earlier this year he was an intern at the Sea Power Centre-Australia. Image courtesy of Flickr user Niels Linneberg.