The Myth of Japanese Remilitarization

October 15, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyState of the MilitaryPeacekeeping Region: Japan

The Myth of Japanese Remilitarization

"Japan’s defense policies are evolving to keep pace with a changing regional environment, but the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, nor the capability to do so."

Frankly, and counterintuitively, the international environment is more peaceful and stable today than it was 100 years ago, despite enduring rivalry with China over what Japan terms “remote islands.” Although China and Japan bicker over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, neither China, nor Japan has even begun the steps to war—neither country puts sanctions on the other or attempts to restrict their massive bilateral trade and investment; fishermen and coast guards contend with each other, but navies do not exchange fire. Perhaps most importantly, both sides unquestioningly accept the existence of the other country—neither has any intention of conquering or colonizing the other. So while accidents may happen, and they should be managed with care, that possibility is different from a situation in which countries plan to eliminate each other from existence or subjugate them and their people.

Korea and Japan have an intense maritime dispute, too, and like Chinese, Koreans have bitter memories of Japan’s past actions. But as with Chinese-Japanese relations, a Korea-Japan war is highly unlikely, and the two appear prepared to contend their claims through means other than war. Frictions persist and tensions ebb and fall, but there is an understanding among Japanese and Korean politicians and publics of the value and importance of a positive bilateral relationship. Disputes between the two countries are loud and bitter, but there are constraints to how far the ill will can drive the relationship.

Plainly, there is no indication that Japan’s national survival is at stake. Absent that existential threat, mustering the national will to create and sustain a military that could project power or threaten its neighbors will not occur.

Finally, there is the United States. The United States takes its role as regional security guarantor quite seriously. The rebalance to Asia is an explicit expression of the United States’ increasing interest in the region and a powerful reminder that Washington will stay deeply involved in Asian affairs. A core component of that engagement is the U.S. alliance system, and the U.S.-Japanese alliance has historically topped the list of critical partnerships in the region. But a significant body of scholarship shows the U.S. alliances have also been tools for Washington to influence the foreign policies of those governments, in particular to restrain their abilities to disrupt the region. No U.S. government is going to give its ally carte blanche, if that means a subsequent destabilization of regional affairs. The statement of “disappointment” from the United States that followed Prime Minister Abe’s December 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine is proof that Washington will not hesitate to express its misgivings if any country—even an ally—threatens regional stability. In short, the protests by some countries that the United States is prepared to “unleash” Tokyo to act on its behalf are nonsense. And it is worth noting that historically, the first priority of any Japanese government has been to safeguard its alliance with the United States. Governments have fallen when Japanese politicians and the public feared that the alliance was being mismanaged or slighted. (Of course, the United States doesn’t have a blank check.) And the need for that alliance is judged ever more compelling in Japan, given rising tensions with China. Barring a radical unforeseeable shift in U.S. policy, the United States will restrain Japan if Washington fears that Tokyo could be a destabilizing influence on regional affairs.

What does this mean? First and foremost, it should put a stake through the heart of the claim that Japan is remilitarizing and will pose a threat to the region. Japan’s defense policies are evolving to keep pace with a changing regional environment, but the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, nor the capability to do so.

Moreover, the international environment has been transformed. While military conflict is not impossible, norms governing the use of force have changed from 100 years ago. At this moment, a cornerstone of the Abe administration’s foreign policy is the rejection of the right of any state to arbitrarily or unilaterally change the status quo. The fundamental premise behind the threat of a remilitarized Japan is rejection of exactly that principle; otherwise, any such policy shift is merely defensive in nature, to prevent unilateral action being taken against Japan.

The argument that a remilitarized Japan could destabilize Asia suggests that regional stability is fragile. It presumes that other countries lack the means to counter an aggressive Japan. Yet unlike 100 years ago, the nations of Asia, even the smaller ones, are increasingly able to defend their national interests. There are international institutions and legal mechanisms that protect their sovereignty. In combination with their own capabilities, this should do the job. And most significantly, Asia is deeply integrated into the fabric of the international system and the global economy. If the operating principle among colonial powers 150 years ago was “divide and conquer,” today the world has a powerful stake in “regional stability and peace.” The combination of these mechanisms, institutions and beliefs is a powerful constraint on any country that would seek unilateral advantage or to destabilize the region.

A second and compelling conclusion is that Americans and others who hope for an assertive, ambitious Japan risk being disappointed. Japan will be stronger and safe, but it is unlikely to truly be an activist country on the international stage over the long term. It is important that the United States keep its hopes for Japan in context, and scale back expectations about Japan’s foreign policy to those that are more realistic, to ensure that this strong alliance endures. Japan can be a problem-solving country, an active and inspiring example of how to be a rich and democratic country that passes through social, demographic and economic transitions. (And assuming even that role is not guaranteed.) But it might not be the partner that we envision.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS.

David C. Kang is a professor of international relations and business and Director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. He tweets at: @daveckang.