Does Japan’s Foreign Policy Shift Take Collective Security Burden Off US?


I’m sorry for the clunky title, but I was honestly unsure how to title this one—and besides, it sounds like it belongs right in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine. For those of you not in the loop, Japan has had a new election, and the incoming Prime Minister is a bit more, shall we say, “hawkish” than his predecessors:

TOKYO (AP) - Imagine that North Korea launched a missile at Japan. Tokyo could - and would certainly try to - shoot it down. But if the missile were flying overhead toward Hawaii or the continental United States, Japan would have to sit idly by.

Japan’s military is kept on a very short leash under a war-renouncing constitution written by U.S. officials whose main concern was keeping Japan from rearming soon after World War II. But if Japan’s soon-to-be prime minister Shinzo Abe has his way, the status quo may be in for some change.

Abe, set to take office for a second time after leading his conservative party to victory in elections last Sunday, has vowed a fundamental review of Japan’s taboo-ridden postwar security policies and proposed ideas that range from changing the name of the military - now called the Japan Self-Defense Forces - to revising the constitution itself.

Most of all, he wants to open the door to what the Japanese call “collective defense,” which would allow Japan’s troops to fight alongside their allies - especially the U.S. troops who are obliged to defend Japan - if either comes under direct attack. The United States has about 50,000 troops in Japan, including its largest air base in Asia.

Right now, if Japan’s current standoff with China over a group of disputed islands got physical, and U.S. Navy ships coming to Japan’s assistance took enemy fire, Japan wouldn’t be able to help them.

This is a huge change for Japan. When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, it forced Japan to make huge concessions. One of them was not having a proper military, but instead the aforementioned “Japan Self-Defense Forces.” Thanks to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, they are barred from engaging in aggressive actions. (Heck, for a long time, they wouldn’t even call tanks “tanks,” but “special vehicles.”) Article 9, when translated into English, reads:

ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

This is pretty freaking libertarian, and when I spent my year in Japan, I told my Japanese friends (yes, I have some, and they’re not all anime characters) how impressed I was by the JSDF and how, in some fashion, I wish America had something more like it. I’m totally cool with armed forces acting as a purely defensive force, but I’m not cool with aggressive warfare and being the world’s policeman.

Unfortunately, due to our relations with other nations, we’re forced to be. We have basically subsidized Europe’s defense costs for over sixty years, with European nations really having no militaries and not chipping in at all to NATO. It’s the same thing with Japan and most countries in the Far East; South Korea has not had to spend all that much on it’s military, if I’m not mistaken. (Taiwan is something of a special case, because of their deep feud with communist China.)

So I’m quite torn on this. On the one hand, I regret that this example of a peaceful de facto military force will quite likely disappear. On the other, though, I’m glad that other nations are stepping up in their own defense, and thus removing the need for the US to be the world’s policeman—at least in East Asia. (I bet Europe is still screwed.)

However, other issues need to be taken into consideration. No discussion of this topic could go without mention of the South China Sea, where Japan, China, Taiwan, the Phillippines, and other players in East Asia have been engaged in a pissing match over for several years. I spoke to conservatives in DC, and one fear is that if the US “disengages” from East Asia, China will just annex the South China Sea—which is beyond it’s international maritime borders—and all the resources that are there. It’s already led to one near-conflict this year. If Japan powers up it’s military forces and enters the fray, what will happen?

Naturally, if Prime Minister Abe gets his way, everyone else in the area is going to see this as prelude to Japanese aggression. I don’t think that will actually happen—the Japan of the 1930’s and 1940’s is vastly different from the Japan of today—but the rhetoric I’m seeing could be cause for alarm (from first link):

Japan has one of the most sophisticated military forces in the world, with a quarter million troops, a well-equipped navy and an air force that will acquire dozens of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters over the next several years, in addition to its already formidable fleet of F-15s. Japan’s annual defense budget is the world’s sixth largest.

“We should stand tall in the international community,” said Narushige Michishita, who has advised the government on defense issues and is the director of the security and international program at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

“These are good, well-trained conventional forces,” he said. “We are second to none in Asia. So the idea is why don’t we start using this. We don’t have to start going to war. We can use it more effectively as a deterrent. If we get rid of legal, political and psychological restraints, we can do much more. We should start playing a larger and more responsible in international security affairs.”

Yeah, uh-huh.

I don’t expect China to just take this lying down, either. Although China is no longer ruled by the divine emperors, the idea that China is morally superior to every other country in the world and that other nations in the area must pay tribute and act like good little children is still the status quo among Chinese leaders. (To be fair, though, every leader acts like that. China just has it institutionalized.) Will we see a Sino-Japanese War? Unlikely; it would just be too costly for either side. But little spats between the Chinese and Japanese coast guards could get a tad more ugly, and there is a chance that Abe will prop up his neighbors (like the Phillippines) in order to form a bulwark against the Chinese.

In which case, Americans can probably sit back and relax. Yes, China has a big military—but are they willing to take on a Pan-Asian Alliance? Come on. They’re not stupid.

I think we should be cautiously optimistic about this. Obviously, no one wants a war—particularly one involving Japan and China, which will instantly pull the US in. But by the same token, it would be nice for other nations to step up and pay for their own defense, instead of just relying on us all the time. That’s the way it should be. We’re not the world’s policeman, and hopefully, with more Shinzo Abe’s, we can stop pretending we are soon.

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