Thursday, 17 July 2014

Japan's resurgence poses more questions than answers

Following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to both New Zealand and Australia last week, it’s worth considering why the East Asian powerhouse is acting more extroverted lately, especially in the security sphere.

Mr Abe’s special brand of reparative economics is gaining a lot of attention, but so is his drive to normalise the use of Japan’s substantial military force. Japan already boasts the strongest navy in the Pacific after the United States, but it can’t use it – yet.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews an
honor guard before meeting with high-ranking officers

This build-up has happened right in front of the world as we focused our attention on the China heavyweight instead. It’s been a long time since WWII, but the militaristic history of Japan is within living memory. An evolution is happening in Japanese society and Mr Abe’s responses are touching very tender nerves in the region.

The prime minister is overhauling Japan’s security policy, including revising the US–Japan Defence Cooperation guidelines. At the beginning of the month, Mr Abe announced a resolution enabling Japan to bypass its 60-year-old constitutional ban on maintaining armed forces and waging war.

In particular, he’s changing the section of the Japanese constitution known as Article Nine which places severe restrictions on the military and limits its role to self-defense. It was drafted under US occupation and ratified in 1947.

It states that the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” For that purpose, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Japanese elites now say these limitations probably do more harm than good. They don’t want them repealed, just changed.

After all, the purpose of Japan’s constitutional pacifism is to maintain peace, but what if this requires the threat or use of hard force? Should Article Nine be interpreted literally, as an absolute abandonment of the use of force, or should it be interpreted more loosely as an imperfect articulation of Japan's desire to preserve peace?

Mr Abe is now claiming that Japan is preparing for war to preserve peace. The decision to reverse its pacifist stance and use the Self Defence Force (SDF) where Japan’s territory is not directly under threat is only the beginning of the country's reinvention.

This will be a significant shift in Japanese foreign policy. But the potential for Japanese forces to be deployed overseas in not only a humanitarian but also in a greater security capacity introduces more questions than it answers.

These questions are not theoretical. Japan’s SDF has learned valuable lessons about how far they can and can’t go when deployed overseas, and it is frustrating many officials.

A high–ranking Japanese defence official commented recently to the National Business Review that the SDF’s experience in assisting United Nations operations in South East Asia, for instance, over the past couple of decades is highly contradictory and almost laughable.

He explained how a nearby UN military base came under attack by rebel forces. The call went out for immediate aid but the Japanese SDF – based less than a kilometre away –was unable to respond because of the constraints on using military force built into their constitution. They sat helplessly in their base as another country’s armed forces took responsibility instead.

Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's Aegis
guided-missile destroyers, Kongo (front) and Chokai (rear)
Mr Abe’s legal advisors argue that constitutional interpretations have evolved since their imposition. Yet with examples like the above there is clearly plenty of room for further evolution. The pervading belief now is that a pacifist principle is an end, rather than a means.

From this perspective emerging threats from abroad will force Japan to develop new ways of countering those threats to preserve peace. Details must be sorted out but the final result will allow Japan to exercise collective self-defence when under direct attack or when direct harm is done to the US-Japan alliance, the international order or the Japanese people.

If these turn out to be the final conditions, they’ll justify action in almost any scenario, and that should be worrying.

It is unclear where Japan intends to stop with their broad-brush reinterpretation. Will they be happy with a competent defence structure built at minimum to protect against regional threats and cooperate with US forces? Or are they looking to counter China by constructing a military on parity?

If it’s the latter - and far more strategically important – end of the spectrum what will Japan do if China’s current military expansion slows or turns inwards to deal with rising domestic unrest? And that is by no means a fanciful dystopia: a Chinese slowdown is a very real possibility.

Japan has made no secret that China’s growing military capabilities and desire to change the status quo are providing the most compelling reasons for its military normalisation. But would Mr Abe apply the brakes if China reduced its regional threat? Not likely. There’s a much bigger game here.

Mr Abe’s visit to New Zealand and Australia has context. Japan is apparently wide–awake and willing to interact much more vigorously. The Asia Pacific better get used to it, because Japan is back. Now we each must decide whether this is such a promising sign after all.

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