While attention has been focused on Ukraine, Iraq and the Middle East, something has occurred on the other side of the world that carries just as much risk for our security: The New York Times put it well with its story, “Japan Announces a Military Shift to Thwart China.”
For decades, the Japanese military was restricted, primarily by the United States after World War II. Article 9 of the postwar Japanese Constitution limited Japan’s use of force to defending its homeland.
Now, however, at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s urging, the cabinet reinterpreted the pertinent article. Now it allows Japan to intervene militarily when a close ally is attacked. This involves Japan’s acceptance of an old concept — that of collective self-defense.
One analyst called the move “a milestone in Japanese strategic thinking.” The United States has urged Tokyo to take this step for 20 years, in part to shift more of the burden of alliance costs and responsibilities on Japan.
What this means is that one of the cornerstones of international relations in the Pacific region has been overturned. In practical terms it means that Japan has become a more important player in Asia. By reinterpreting the constitution, Abe avoided the more difficult task of revising it. What he did requires only the approval of parliament rather that a public referendum.
The move raises a number of questions. Most obviously, why? After all, Japan has enjoyed 60-plus years of peace and avoided entanglement in America’s international actions such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
One reason is President Barack Obama’s decision to cut the U.S. military arsenal. Japanese leaders have expressed concern over the reduction of U.S. assets — Army and Marine assets as well as naval power — in Asia. Not only are countries in Asia less afraid of the United States, they are less trusting of assurances of our ability and willingness to protect them. Indeed, one aspect of the more assertive Japan is that it can force the United States to become more involved in Asian issues.
Second, Japan is increasingly concerned about China. China claims most of the South China Sea as well as Islands also claimed and occupied by Japan. The Japanese cannot hope to stand up to Beijing unless Tokyo strengthens its armed forces.
Moreover, given China’s more assertive role in the Pacific, Japan needs to build alliances with Pacific nations threatened by Beijing, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia. To accomplish these foreign policy goals, a strong military force — especially a modern navy — is essential.
Additionally, Japanese politicians want the world to know that there is a Japanese renaissance. For 60 years, Japan has had to hide its military power, using it only sparingly. No longer. Japan has no intention of misusing its power, as it did in the past, but it wants to be a force to be reckoned with.
Finally, Tokyo is understandably concerned about North Korea. The idea of Pyongyang firing missiles that may or may not hit Japan is not acceptable. Japan previously could not do anything until one of the missiles actually struck the homeland. Now, however, if it locates a missile heading to Japan or the United States, it can shoot it down.
In many ways what has happened in Japan is a psychological revolution, although not all Japanese share Abe’s new approach to security. One person committed self immolation in Tokyo when the change was announced, and about 200 people demonstrated against it.
But the attitudes of most Japanese have slowly evolved. Recent actions by China have not been well received in Japan, and nany agree with Abe.
Not surprisingly, Japan’s decision has not been received well by its neighbors, including South Korea. China, however, was the most outspoken, noting that the new policy “raises doubts about Japan’s “peaceful approach to peaceful development” and accusing Tokyo of “hyping the Chinese threat.”
The major risk is a military clash between China and Japan. That would inevitably involve the United States despite Obama’s efforts to avoid it. A major clash between China and Japan would have the most serious implications for the entire region.