Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to transform Japan into a “normal”l country. Tokyo plans to take a more active role internationally—which is good news for America. Indeed, Washington should insist that Tokyo eventually take over responsibility for defending itself and its territorial claims in the surrounding seas.
Many seemingly bright ideas sour quickly, causing one to regret them but once, and that is forever. Such is Article 9 of the Japanese constitution , imposed by America as military occupier after World War II. Washington quickly realized that Tokyo, like Germany, could play a positive military role.
But by then, Japanese officials preferred to hide behind their constitution. Tokyo saw little reason to revisit an extraordinarily good deal that left what became the world’s second largest economic power protected by its principal competitor. Japan then could focus on economic development.
In recent years, the United States has pushed Japan to do more militarily. A serious internal debate has been percolating at least since the early 1990s, especially after North Korea and China began reminding the Japanese that their land faced potential threats.
So far, Japanese officials have simply revised their interpretation of Article 9. Although it seems to ban any military, Japan deploys a “Self-Defense Force.” Over the years, the government has bent the provision to the breaking point, but never clearly violated the nation’s basic law.
Now the Abe government has issued another “reinterpretation.” However, Japan is not yet a normal country. The Prime Minister noted: “There is no change in the general principle that we cannot send troops overseas.”
Still, the SDF will be allowed to cooperate with other countries (most obviously America) that come to Japan’s defense. Tokyo also will be able to aid allies under attack and join peacekeeping operations in the name of “collective self-defense.” These are important steps forward, even though the change would be small for other nations. Yet the “reinterpretation” requires only cabinet and parliamentary approval, not constitutional revision.
The controversial move triggered public protests. One man set himself on fire in response. The Abe plan may have contributed to the ruling party’s election loss in a provincial governor’s race. The Diet must change numerous laws to implement the change, and Prime Minister Abe indicated that he planned to go slow: “Unfortunately, we cannot say that public is fully supportive.”
Overseas the response was mixed. The PRC predictably was unhappy. A government spokesman said: “China opposes the Japanese fabricating the China threat to promote its domestic political agenda.” The Republic of Korea explained it was “paying sharp attention to” the policy. Seoul also called on Japan to win its neighbors’ confidence and insisted that Japanese forces would have to be invited in for any “collective” mission.
Other nations—in a break from the past—were supportive. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott endorsed the move. So did the Philippines, which earlier welcomed Tokyo taking a more active military role in response to Beijing’s aggressive ocean maneuvers. Singapore also offered public support, while most ASEAN states and India were favorably inclined, if more private in their reactions. In fact, Japan recently announced that it was giving six ships to Vietnam for use in coast guard and fisheries operations.
The United States was pleased. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel explained: “This decision is an important step for Japan as it seeks to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security.”
Some critics still worry about Tokyo’s ultimate intentions, as if the Japanese had a double dose of original sin. But everyone who planned the depredations of World War II is dead. There is no imperial generation planning a comeback. And those pushing a more aggressive stance seem mild compared to America’s war-happy neoconservatives. Nor does Japan, with a stagnant economy, middling (and declining) population and pacifist ethos, look much like the next global dominator.
Instead, Japan’s well-established desire to do nothing has run aground because the world looks ever-more dangerous. With the Chinese challenge only likely to grow, Tokyo needs to be able to match the PRC. Moreover, even though Washington has affirmed coverage of the “mutual” defense treaty (Japan’s responsibilities are essentially nil), America’s interest in which country controls various uninhabited rocks also is essentially nil. Exactly what the United States would do in a crisis is not so clear .
Moreover, basic economics suggests that Washington will have to reduce its role. As Prime Minister Abe recognized in 2012: “With the U.S. defense budget facing big cuts, a collapse of the military balance of power in Asia could create instability.” The underlying defense commitment itself will face increasing challenges. Stephen Harner, a former Foreign Service officer, wrote of “the possibility that the U.S. commitment to the alliance may one day be formally withdrawn or, more likely, may simply be recognized by all to be illusory, a fiction that dares not speak its name.”