East Asia reacts to a bolder Japan

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For some six and a half decades after the end of World War II, Japan portrayed itself as a quasi-pacifist nation. If taken literally, Article 9 of Japan’s constitution would seem to ban even the existence of a military, although no Japanese government ever interpreted the clause in such a strict manner. Tokyo’s “Self Defense Force” was a euphemism for a small but technologically sophisticated military. Yet Japan’s official aversion to warfare remained potent, and a succession of Japanese governments over the decades seemed content to rely on the United States to protect the country’s vital interests.

That attitude appears to have shifted in recent years, and the emergence of Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister in 2012 has accelerated the trend toward a more assertive role in regional security affairs. His musings about lifting Japan’s self-imposed limit of spending no more than 1% of the country’s gross domestic product on the military and hints that Article 9 might need to be revised have attracted attention in the United States and throughout East Asia.

Even before Abe’s victory, though, there were signs of a “new Japan” in the security realm. The most noticeable indicator was Tokyo’s uncompromising stance regarding its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea. Japan also adopted an even more hard line position toward North Korea than that taken by the United States. Japanese officials and opinion leaders indicated that even if North Korea curtails its nuclear and missile programs, normal diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang cannot be established until the North Korean government fully acknowledges and provides adequate compensation for Japanese nationals that the communist regime abducted in previous years. Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba even asserted that Japan has the right to launch preemptive military strikes against North Korea, if officials believed that an act of aggression was imminent.

A bolder Japan has produced a range of reactions among neighboring countries. Predictably, North Korea’s response is a caricature of saber-rattling paranoia. That is nothing new, since Pyongyang never made a distinction between the Imperial Japan of the early 20th century and the post-World War II nation of anti-militaristic merchants. China and South Korea have responded with a mixture of nervousness and hostility, but the reaction elsewhere in the region to a more activist Japan has been surprisingly favorable.

South Korea’s wariness primarily reflects historical factors, although ongoing bilateral tensions over disputed islands (called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan) also play a role. The emotional wounds from Japan’s exploitive, sometimes brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the 20th century continue to fester. Prominent Japanese periodically exacerbate tensions by making clumsy, insensitive statements about that period. One recent example was Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s comment that World War II “comfort women” (young, mostly Korean women that the Japanese military pressed into sexual slavery) had been necessary to maintain discipline.

Historical factors also play a role in China’s wary stance toward Japan. Chinese officials and journalists never miss an opportunity to provide reminders about Japan’s ugly behavior in their country and the surrounding region during the 1930s and early 1940s. Suggestions that the restrictions on Japan’s military embodied in Article 9 should be weakened generate strong denunciations in China. “Given the Japanese government’s refusal to apologize for Japan’s aggression during World War II, any revision of Japan’s constitution,” an editorial in China Daily warned, would be “a cause for concern in the rest of the world.” Cui Tankai, Beijing’s Ambassador to Washington, contended that the United States should be just as worried as other countries about mounting manifestations of Japanese nationalism, including the recent visit of Diet members to the Yasukuni Shrine, where several World War II-era war criminals are buried.

But current geopolitical rivalries are a larger, more important motive than historical grievances for China. Tokyo’s stance over the past year regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has produced shrill accusations of renewed Japanese imperialism in the Chinese media. Suggestions that Japan might need to increase its military spending likewise lead to loud complaints from Beijing. But that attitude is hardly new. China has objected to every step Tokyo has taken over the past half century to play a more normal military role. One gets the sense that Chinese officials would barely be satisfied if the equipment in Japan’s Self Defense Force was confined to single-shot rifles, two-seat propeller planes, and unarmed coastal patrol boats.

The reaction elsewhere in East Asia to Tokyo’s more assertive behavior has been markedly different from the response in the two Koreas and China. As recently as a decade ago, such countries as the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore were adamantly opposed to a more robust Japanese military and the expansion of Tokyo’s security role beyond homeland defense. East Asian leaders also were emphatic that the United States needed to exercise a strong supervisory function regarding Japan’s existing military activities. Singapore’s long-time leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was the most vocal in warning about the danger of revived Japanese militarism, but he implicitly spoke for many of his colleagues in the region. 

Yet, China’s rise has changed the strategic calculations, both in the United States and in many East Asian capitals. During George W. Bush’s administration, US officials worked to strengthen the alliance with Japan and to get Japanese leaders to view the alliance as a vehicle to address other security contingencies in the region, not confine it to Japan’s territorial defense. That deepening strategic partnership has continued during the Obama years.

Several East Asian nations now seem to view Japan as an important strategic counterweight to China. When asked how his government would view a rearmed, non-pacifist Japan, Philippines Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times “We would welcome that very much.” He added, “We are looking for balancing factors in the region, and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.” And such opinions are being put into action. In January 2013, Tokyo and Manila agreed to enhance their cooperation on maritime security. Bilateral ties are also growing with Singapore and Australia on such matters. 

Worries about the need to balance China’s growing power are spreading beyond the immediate East Asia neighborhood. That was certainly a factor at the June summit between Prime Minister Abe and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which cooperation even on the highly sensitive issue of nuclear technology was high on the agenda. Japan’s hostility to the proliferation of nuclear weapons had previously been an insurmountable barrier to bilateral strategic cooperation (Tokyo’s changing views on the nuclear issue were also evident in the June 7 agreement with France to deepen Franco-Japanese cooperation on nuclear technology and consider joint development of military equipment. The juxtaposition of those two goals was especially interesting).

The prospect of Japan playing a political-military role appropriate for the world’s third largest economic power will likely continue to be resisted in China and the two Koreas, but it is well on its way to being accepted elsewhere in the region. Rommel Banaoi of the Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, based in Manila, succinctly captured the new perspective: “We have already put aside our nightmares of World War II because of the threat posed by China,” he said.

Japan’s regional role is changing, and the attitude of at least some neighbors about a bolder Japan also is changing. East Asia’s geostrategic environment will never be quite the same.