The Schizophrenic Superpower

The Schizophrenic Superpower

Mini Teaser: Japan would prefer to be an ecnomic giant and a political pygmy. Neither circumstances nor its neighbors will allow it that luxury.

by Author(s): Alan Dupont

When Robert Kagan famously wrote that, in their approach to power and security, Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus, what might he have said about Japan? In most respects, post-modern Japan has been more like Europe than America in preferring diplomacy to force, persuasion to coercion and multilateralism to unilateralism. Indeed, it might be said that Japan is even further towards the Venusian end of the celestial spectrum in its aversion to the instruments ofmilitary power. No other country in the world explicitly renounces war as a sovereign right; or eschews the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes; or proscribes land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential. This deeply ingrained pacifism is all the more remarkable when one considers that Japan is not an Asian Costa Rica, but the world's second-largest economy, a major financial power and a favored candidate for a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council.

But there is another Japan--one with a long martial tradition, embodied in the ancient samurai of legend, which in the first half of the 20th century destroyed Russia's Baltic fleet, colonized Korea, invaded China and subjugated Southeast Asia before its eventual catastrophic defeat in 1945. Today, Japan is once again a leading military power, with the world's third-largest defense budget (after the United States and China) and a quarter million men and women under arms. Its Self-Defense Force (SDF) is deployed on peacekeeping operations around the world, for tsunami relief in Southeast Asia and in support of U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. More and more politicians chafe at the self-imposed constitutional restrictions on the military and believe that Japan must be more resolute and assertive in defending its vital interests, including taking pre-emptive military action, when necessary. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has talked up constitutional reform and declared his desire to see Japan become a "normal country." He has even dared to call the SDF what it really is--a modern army, navy and air force.

Is this a dangerous reawakening of Japan's martial instincts and desire for hegemony, as critics maintain? Or are we seeing the emergence of a pragmatic new realism that is a natural and long-overdue readjustment to the nation's much altered and more foreboding external environment? And if so, what will be the strategic consequences of a more assertive Japan? Japan is moving away from its pacifist past towards a more hard-headed and outward-looking security posture characterized by a greater willingness to use the SDF in support of Japan's foreign policy and defense interests. This shift is evolutionary, not revolutionary. But it is gaining momentum and represents a watershed in Japan's postwar security policy that will require some new thinking in Washington as well as Tokyo.

Pacifism's Denouement

Pacifist sentiment has become so entrenched in modern Japan that the country's capacity for change is apt to be discounted, or underestimated, even by long-time Japan watchers. Granted, Koizumi's robust utterances on national security often run ahead of policy, and he is certainly not the first contemporary Japanese prime minister to seem like a hawk among doves, as Yasuhiro Nakasone's tenure in the 1980s reminds us. But the shift away from pacifism is palpable, irreversible and more broadly based than Koizumi's alone.

The most compelling evidence of the sea-change underway in Japanese attitudes towards security is the accelerating erosion under Koizumi's stewardship of the constitutional and administrative restraints on the use of force and collective self-defense. The chief cause is that a once-apathetic public is becoming increasingly concerned about the deterioration in Japan's security environment, mainly due to the spread of transnational terrorism, North Korean antipathy, and China's burgeoning economic growth and military power. Recent polls, including one conducted by the authoritative Asahi Shimbun newspaper, show that a clear majority of Japanese people and parliamentarians are now in favor of constitutional revision (kaiken), and nearly half want to abandon the prohibition on collective self-defense. Significantly, younger people are more inclined to support revising the constitution than their parents.

A contributing factor is the weakening of the coalition of interests in the Diet that has long defended the constitutional status quo (goken), especially the precipitate decline in influence of the left-leaning and traditionally pacifist Social Democratic Party (SDP). The eclipse of the SDP and its allies on the political Left has increased the probability that the war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution will be rewritten substantially to explicitly recognize the existence of the SDF. Other likely amendments will make it easier for the government to sanction the SDF's deployment in a wide range of contingencies, although these international contributions are likely to be limited to non-combat roles for the time being. As a result, future Japanese governments will no longer be seriously encumbered by constitutional restrictions that have clearly outlived their usefulness. Any decision to dispatch the SDF will henceforth be made, as in all other countries, according to the political judgement of the government of the day and calculations of national interest.

However, revision of the constitution is not the only reason for supposing that Japan is shedding more than half a century of embedded pacifism. It is difficult for non-Japanese to appreciate the extraordinarily detailed administrative constraints on what would be considered normal defense activities in most countries. Some of these have bordered on the absurd. One senior Japanese defense official was heard to lament that tanks en route to counter an invasion would never get there in time because they were required to observe the speed limit and stop at red lights. The reason was the almost complete absence of mobilization legislation that would give the government authority to suspend civil law in the event of a military emergency.

These impediments have now been largely removed with the June 2004 passage of seven bills in the Diet. These bills augment contingency legislation enacted the previous year and designed to facilitate civil-defense cooperation between the national government and the prefectural and local authorities in the event of an emergency or an attack on Japan. The bills improve military preparedness and mobilization by allowing the Japanese and U.S. military to use seaports, airports, roads, radio frequencies and other public property in an emergency. They also permit the SDF to fire on commercial ships outside Japan's territorial waters if they refuse inspection during a crisis.

Koizumi has also steadily whittled away the normative constraints on overseas deployments of the SDF. The U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom to destroy Al-Qaeda's redoubt in the mountains of Afghanistan, supported by Japanese destroyers and supply ships, demonstrated conclusively that the era of checkbook diplomacy is finally over and that henceforth Japan intends to pull its weight militarily within the U.S. alliance. Iraq was an even greater break with tradition. In an unprecedented decision, Koizumi succeeded in gaining parliamentary approval to send some 600 troops to southern Iraq. The troops could only be used in non-combat roles. Samawah was selected because it was notionally free of conflict, but their very presence confirms that Japan has crossed a political Rubicon and that the government is determined to make the SDF a more usable and useful force.

Japan's Strategic Intentions

What is less clear is how the SDF will be deployed in the future, and for what purposes. There are two diametrically opposed views about Japan's strategic objectives. Those skeptical of its peaceful disposition and benign intentions contend that Tokyo is incrementally acquiring the military capabilities and strategic reach to complement its economic strength and give effect to long-suppressed regional power aspirations. Skeptics argue that Japan's expanding peacekeeping activities, government pressure to revise the constitution, cooperation with the United States in missile defense, and procurement of military platforms and weapons systems that can be used offensively are all evidence of Tokyo's hegemonic intent.

Pragmatists, on the other hand, consider the changes in Japan's security policy to be largely illusory and maintain that the government's commitment to defense reform and greater burden-sharing within the alliance is rhetorical, rather than substantive. In their eyes, Koizumi's promise of military support for the United States in Afghanistan fell far short of expectations. And despite the fanfare and flag-waving, Japanese forces dispatched to Iraq are serving in non-combat roles, forbidden to shoot other than in self-defense. Thus, there is very little prospect of Japan becoming more assertive globally or contributing much of real strategic value in East Asia, other than in the defense of Japan. A corollary is that Japan will continue to rely on the United States as a military shield while wielding the sword of mercantilism, cultivating a range of partners, including U.S. adversaries such as Iran, to hedge against economic dangers.

Curiously, neither side of this debate has grasped the real significance of the shift in public opinion or the reorientation of security policy that has been under way for more than a decade. A close examination of current Japanese attitudes towards security does not suggest the collective mindset of a resurgent hegemon. There is no political constituency for transforming the SDF into the kind of expeditionary force that would be necessary to sustain a new Japanese hegemony in Asia. With the possible exception of a small group of ultra-nationalists, who continue to harbor delusions of a return to some form of imperium, "normalizers" within the major political parties evince remarkably modest strategic aspirations.

Essay Types: Essay