The Almost-Normal Country: Japan and the Use of Force

The enactment of Japan’s new national security bills was a long time in the making.  The bills, already passed by the lower house of the Japanese Diet in July, were approved by its upper house last week.  But ever since Shinzō Abe became Japan’s prime minister in 2012, he had sought legislation that would enable Japan to engage in “collective self-defense,” the ability to aid friendly countries under attack.  While that may seem routine in most countries, it has been anything but in Japan.  Many were unhappy with the legislation’s passage.  Those who opposed it feared that it would lead the country into war; and even some of those who supported it grumbled that it did not go far enough to make Japan a truly “normal” country, one where the use of force is considered as a legitimate tool of international politics.

Japan Collective Self-Defense

Unsurprisingly, China was quick to condemn the legislation’s passage.  China’s Ministry of National Defense declared that Japan’s new security laws ran “counter to the trend of the times that upholds peace, development and cooperation.”  The ministry chastised “Japan’s war mentality, its reinforcement of military alliances and attempts to send more troops abroad.”  Chinese media was less charitable.  Xinhua carried the headlines: “China Voice: Is Japan bound up to battle chariot?” and “News Analysis: Japan’s pacifist ideals stripped as Abe steps closer to resurrecting old war machine.”  One commentator at The People’s Daily blamed the “unyielding spirit of militarism” of Japanese leaders who were “breaking [Japan’s] pacifist promise and getting ready to send its troops to battles again.”[1]

Of course, China rarely passes up an opportunity to remind Japan of its imperial aggression.  Thirty-six years of Japanese economic aid to China—now nearly $1.2 billion per year—has yet to restrain its reflex.  In part, that is because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has often used anti-Japanese sentiment to buttress its own political legitimacy.  (Only recently did the CCP even credit its longtime Chinese rival, the Kuomintang on Taiwan, for its contribution—arguably larger than the CCP’s—to resisting Japan in World War II.)

That it took so long for Japan to pass this sort of legislation is a testament to the strength of Japan’s postwar pacifist sentiment.  While militarist elements may still lurk in Japan, most Japanese are decidedly uncomfortable with the use of force in international politics.  That was clear during Japan’s negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories (or southern Kuril Islands in Russia) in the 1990s.  Though Japan had already begun its long economic stagnation, its military and political might was still near its peak.  In contrast, Russia, following the fall of the Soviet Union, was at its nadir.  Things were so bad in the Russian Far East that it was questionable whether Moscow could provide enough food or heat for its population on Sakhalin Island, let alone defend it.

Yet, Japan did not try to use its military or political capital to pressure Russia into a settlement.  Rather, Japan solely relied on the persuasive power of its economic assistance.  That tactic ultimately came to nothing.  After Russia’s economy recovered, Japan’s window of opportunity to settle the dispute on favorable terms closed.  Today, Russian leaders act without concern over Japanese reaction.  They cavalierly flout Japanese interests.  This year, a series of senior Russian officials visited the four disputed islands, despite repeated protests from Tokyo.  Russian Prime Minister Dmitry even toured one of them in August.  While there, he underlined that the Kuril Islands “are part of Russia… That is how it is and how it will be.”[2]

Japan’s self-imposed limitation on its use of force has also impacted its ability to secure its place in a changing East Asian geopolitical environment.  China’s economic rise has drawn other Asian countries closer to its orbit, while its seemingly relentless military rise has upset the regional balance of power.  Without the ability to form true security partnerships, Japan has risked becoming isolated.  Hence, Abe has eagerly cultivated new political and economic ties across the Asia-Pacific, from Australia and India to the countries of Southeast Asia.  Japan has certainly become more sensitive to changes in Asia’s geopolitical balance.  Last year, after Thailand’s relations with the United States soured, offering China an opening, Tokyo leapt into the breach with pledges of economic engagement with Bangkok.

Surely, the most immediate beneficiary of Japan’s new security laws is the United States.  For the past half century, the United States has borne the entire security burden of the alliance between the two countries—if Japan is attacked, the United States is obligated to defend Japan; but if the United States is attacked, Japan has no such reciprocal obligation.  Even during the Cold War, that uneven arrangement rankled some Americans.  To make it more equitable, Japan accepted the lion’s share of the financial burden to host American forces in Japan.  But with the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of a substantial portion of American forces from Japan (to Guam and elsewhere), the relationship was about to tilt again.  Thus, it was hardly surprising that Washington welcomed the legislation’s passage.

But beyond the United States, the legislation also enables Japan to more effectively cooperate with other countries on security matters.  If Japan’s relationships with Australia, India, the Philippines, and recently Vietnam mature into security partnerships, those countries can now count on Japan as a full partner.  In fact, in the days before the upper house vote on the national security bills, Abe met with Vietnam’s communist party secretary to discuss stronger security ties, in light of Vietnam’s dispute with China in the South China Sea.  Abe pledged more patrol boats for Vietnam.  Such promises is partly what worries Japanese opponents of the bills.  Getting Japan entangled in the disputes of other countries could pull it into a conflict, perhaps with China.  On the other hand, the possibility of facing a regional network of security partners might restrain China’s aggressiveness.  After all, China’s own economic prosperity (tenuous as it has become this year) requires peace and stability.

Even with the enactment of its new national security bills, Japan seems unlikely to seek the active use of military force far from home.  After all, Japan’s debt-laden government is in no position to rapidly expand its self-defense forces without hurting its still-weak economy.  Moreover, the conditions under which Japan can use force to support American expeditionary efforts abroad are still narrowly circumscribed.  The new legislation may be a step toward a Japan that is more comfortable with the idea of the use of force.  But the road to an actual use of force remains a long one.  Ironically, China may be the one country that could propel Japan faster down that road.

[1] “China Voice: Is Japan bound up to battle chariot?” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; “News Analysis: Japan’s pacifist ideals stripped as Abe steps closer to resurrecting old war machine,” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; “Japan’s new security bills against trend of the times: defense ministry,” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; Wen Zongduo, “Abe’s win is Japan’s loss,” Chinadaily.com, Sep. 19, 2015.

[2] “Moscow officials ‘have always and will continue to’ visit Russian Kuril Islands – PM,” RT.com, Aug. 23, 2015.

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Turning Point: Japan’s Upper House Election and National Security

On Sunday, July 21, the Japanese electorate propelled Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) (together with its partner, the New Komeito Party) to the majority in Japan Diet’s House of Councillors (or upper house).  The victory ends the parliamentary impasse, in which the LDP controlled the lower house and its opponents the upper house.  The biggest issues of the election were Abe’s “three arrow” economic policies and how he hopes to restore Japan’s national power grid.  But many also saw the election as a referendum on Abe’s plans to boost Japan’s self-defense forces and possibly even amend Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which renounces the threat or use of force to settle international disputes and prohibits Japan from establishing formal armed forces.

Though the victory was not large enough to immediately pass a constitutional amendment, it has raised concerns among those Japanese who oppose any revision to Article Nine.  They worry that Japan could experience a resurgence of its pre-World War II militarism or, at the very least, could be pulled into foreign conflicts by its main ally, the United States.  Others, however, are open to amending the constitution; they believe the document, largely written by American lawyers in the occupation authority, should better reflect the needs and will of the Japanese people.  And an increasing number wonder whether the real question is not why Japan should consider amending its constitution, but rather why it has not already done so?  Many young Japanese (like many young Germans) wonder how long their country must repent for and be constrained by the sins committed by their forbearers nearly 70 years ago.  They would like Japan to become, in Abe’s words, an “ordinary country.”

Of course, the debate within Japan has not occurred in isolation.  There have been calls from abroad for Japan to better meet its international security obligations as a major developed country.  After the Persian Gulf Conflict in 1991, some (mainly Americans) found fault with Japan’s contribution to the Coalition war effort, which came largely came in the form of dollars (over $10 billion of them), rather than soldiers.  By the early 2000s, Japan had begun to send small military detachments overseas, usually in clearly defensive, humanitarian, or peacekeeping roles.  Its ground forces were deployed to Iraq as part of the reconstruction effort after 2003 and its maritime forces escorted allied shipping through the Indian Ocean.  And since its inception, Japanese warships have participated in the multinational anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden.

But it has been Japan’s increasingly worrisome security environment over the last several years that has really spurred many Japanese to reexamine the role of their self-defense forces and seriously consider changes to Article Nine for the first time.  North Korea’s unusually prolonged saber rattling this past spring only served to underscore their heightened sense of insecurity.  Despite Japan’s alliance with the United States and much bandied-about American pivot to Asia, other powers in the region seem bent on exploiting Japan’s pacifism.  Since the mid-2000s, Japan has closely monitored a rise in Russian incursions into Japanese airspace as well as a steady increase in the number of Chinese warships that pass near its southern islands and, in some provocative cases, circumnavigate Japan’s home islands.  And, of course, over the last year tensions between China and Japan have risen as a result of their territorial dispute in the East China Sea, which includes the sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.  Indeed, in the week prior to Sunday’s election, China began drilling for oil in a disputed area of the East China Sea, prompting Japan to dispatch a geologic survey ship.

Even so, any overhaul of Japan’s self-defense forces will take time.  It took almost a decade for Japan’s annual defense white paper to even acknowledge that a rising China presented new challenges, presumably because Tokyo wanted to reduce the potential for Chinese backlash against Japanese commercial interests in China.  Following the Cold War, far more Japanese have been concerned about reviving their national economy rather than their national security.  Most believed that the qualitative superiority of Japan’s self-defense forces was sufficient to ensure their safety.  But after years of under investment, together with China’s rapid military modernization and Russia’s revival, Japan has seen its qualitative margin eroded.  And given the recent behavior of its neighbors, a growing number of Japanese feel that more attention must be given to national defense, either with or without an amendment to Article Nine.  The Japanese media frequently reports on the strains that constant patrolling of disputed airspace and waters have put on Japan’s self-defense forces and coast guard.  At a practical level, there is much to do, even apart from new hardware procurement—from making Japan’s self-defense forces work together more jointly to deciding how (and under what circumstances) they would be used.  If tangible progress is made, then the election will have proven itself to be a turning point for Japanese national security.

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