Friday, September 19, 2014
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Japan’s Self-Defense Defense

CAMBRIDGE – Since the end of World War II, Japan has been ruled by an American-written “peace constitution,” Article 9 of which prohibits war and limits Japanese forces to self-defense. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now seeking legislation to enable Japan to reinterpret the constitution to include “collective self-defense,” whereby the country would enhance its security cooperation with other countries, particularly its closest ally, the United States.

Critics view this as a radical departure from seven decades of pacifism. But Abe’s central objectives – improving Japan’s ability to respond to threats that do not amount to armed attack; enabling Japan to participate more effectively in international peacekeeping activities; and redefining measures for self-defense permitted under Article 9 – are actually relatively modest.

Fears that the move would lead to Japanese involvement in distant US wars are similarly overblown. Indeed, the rules have been carefully crafted to prohibit such adventures, while allowing Japan to work more closely with the US on direct threats to Japanese security.

It is not difficult to see why Abe is pursuing broader rights to self-defense. Japan lies in a dangerous region, in which deep-rooted tensions threaten to erupt at any moment.

Given that East Asia, unlike Europe after 1945, never experienced full reconciliation among rivals, or established strong regional institutions, it has been forced to depend on the US-Japan Security Treaty to underpin regional stability. When US President Barack Obama’s administration announced its “rebalancing” toward Asia in 2011, it reaffirmed the 1996 Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration, which cited the US-Japan security alliance as the foundation for stability – a prerequisite for continued economic progress – in Asia.

That declaration served the larger goal of establishing a stable, albeit uneven, triangular relationship among the US, Japan, and China. Subsequent US administrations have upheld this approach, and opinion polls show that it retains broad acceptance in Japan – not least owing to close cooperation on disaster relief following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

But Japan remains extremely vulnerable. The most immediate regional threat is North Korea, whose unpredictable dictatorship has invested its meager economic resources in nuclear and missile technology.

A longer-term concern is the rise of China – an economic and demographic powerhouse whose expanding military capacity has enabled it to take an increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes, including with Japan in the East China Sea. China’s territorial ambitions are also fueling tensions in the South China Sea, where sea-lanes that are vital to Japanese trade are located.

Complicating matters further is the fact that China’s political evolution has failed to keep pace with its economic progress. If the Chinese Communist Party feels threatened by a public frustrated with insufficient political participation and enduring social repression, it could slip into competitive nationalism, upending the already-delicate regional status quo.

Of course, if China becomes aggressive, Asian countries like India and Australia – which are already disturbed by China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea – will join Japan in the effort to offset China’s power. But, as things stand, a strategy of containment would be a mistake. After all, the best way to engender enmity is to treat China as an enemy.

A more effective approach, spearheaded by the US and Japan, would focus on integration, with a hedge against uncertainty. American and Japanese leaders must shape the regional environment in such a way that China has incentives to act responsibly, including by maintaining strong defense capabilities.

Meanwhile, the US and Japan must rethink the structure of their alliance. While the expected revisions to Japan’s defense framework are a positive development, many Japanese still resent the lack of symmetry in the alliance obligations. Others chafe at the burden of US bases, particularly on the island of Okinawa.

A longer-term goal should thus be for the US gradually to transfer its bases to Japanese control, leaving American forces to rotate among them. In fact, some bases – notably, Misawa Air Base north of Tokyo – already fly Japan’s flag, while hosting American units.

But the process must be handled carefully. As China invests in advanced ballistic missiles, the fixed bases on Okinawa become increasingly vulnerable. To avoid the perception that the US decided to turn the bases over to Japan just when their military benefits were diminishing, and to ensure that the move represented America’s recommitment to the alliance, a joint commission would have to be established to manage the transfer.

For Japan, becoming an equal partner in its alliance with the US is essential to securing its regional and global standing. To this end, Abe’s modest step toward collective self-defense is a step in the right direction.

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  1. Commentedshanmugham anand

    Shinzo Abe's moves are only piece-meal. Japan has not yet woken up to the strategic reality of retreating U.S similar to the British withdrawal post-1945. Japan has to stand on its own legs and could no longer ride on other's shoulders.
    Otherwise, it has to swallow its pride and watch its interests waning day by day.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Joseph Nye is defending "Japan's self-defense defense", saying Shinzo Abe's "modest step toward collective self-defense is a step in the right direction", amid a serious diplomatic standoff between Japan and China, which both claim the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands in the East China Sea.
    Article 9 of Japan's current constitution "prohibits war and limits Japanese forces to self-defense". This had been a thorn in the side of nationalists and reactionaries in post-war Japan, who still haven't yet come to terms with their country's troubled history.
    Abe had been deeply influeced by his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi who was prime minister in the late 1950s. After World War II Kishi was arrested as a suspected war criminal but never charged. He saw the "peace constitution" as a humiliation imposed on Japan after its devastating defeat by the US. When Abe became politician two decades ago, he had been questioning the wisdom of upholding the Art. 9 of the constitution. What he has achieved today would make his grandfather very proud, as he has realised his dream.
    It's quite unlikely that we would see the return of a revisionist Japan, as the "rules have been carefully crafted to prohibit such adventures". It's not far-fetched to believe that "Abe’s central objectives" are to improve "Japan’s ability to respond to threats that do not amount to armed attack" and to enable "Japan to participate more effectively in international peacekeeping activities". This will also allow Japan "to work more closely with the US" on countering threats to their security. Yet China and South Korea say the timing of Abe's action can't have been more provocative, as he has to date been unrepentant about Japan's imperialistic past.
    Mr. Nye points out that "Japan lies in a dangerous region, in which deep-rooted tensions threaten to erupt at any moment", without stating the fact that it takes two to make a quarrel. That there has never been a "full reconciliation among the rivals" in East Asia, "unlike Europe after 1945", has much to do with the absence of "strong regional institutions", like the EU. Japan had dominated the region militarily before World War II and economically in the 1960s to 80s. Before February 2011 Japan was the world's second largest economy, only to see itself beaten by China. It was a bitter pill for Japan to swallow. With economic growth China has become more assertive and ambitious under the present leadership.
    It's obvious that Japan sees China as its greatest threat. Mr. Nye believes "the strategy of containment would be a mistake" and the idea of engendering "enmity is to treat China as an enemy" will not bear fruit. Indeed the US and Japan have to "shape the regional environment in such a way that China has incentives to act responsibly".

  3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    "Abe's redefining measures for self-defense are actually relatively modest." The Diplomat. com. made an interview with Dr. Michael Swaine, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It is available at http://thediplomat.com/2014/07/china-and-the-u-s-japan-alliance/.

  4. CommentedA.J. Sutter

    I live in Japan. It's true that many of the eventualities described by the Abe Administration as coming under "collective self-defense" -- such as protecting Japanese citizens abroad, or shooting down missiles flying over Japanese territory even when Japan isn't the target -- shouldn't be controversial, even here in Japan. However, Prof. Nye has ignored several important domestic (Japan) aspects of this issue.

    First, the Abe Administration has done a miserable job of communicating about the substance of so-called CSD. It's hard to see why certain activities should need the "collective" modifier at all -- i.e., they should be permitted as self-defense, period. Abe could have brought along more of the public for at least some of his 16 or so scenarios if he had presented them under this light.

    Second, notwithstanding that his cause was worthier than some perceive, Abe continued to show his anti-democratic tendencies by once again ramrodding debate through various organs of his party and the Diet (similarly, the very scary and ambiguous Designated Secrets Act of last year, also at US behest). This has less to do with the issue of "re-interpretation," which is a common enough occurrence in the US and other constitutional states, than with his attitude toward allowing the general public and even Diet members to get involved in shaping the discussion. Like most American commentators, Prof. Nye doesn't care very to examine whether Japan really is as much of a democracy as the conventional wisdom claims it is -- Japan, no less than Saudi Arabia, is of interest to US pundits, professors and politicians only as either a US vassal or as a potential regional irritant.

    Third, unfortunately Japanese politicians and bureaucrats of a certain stripe also see Japan as a US vassal in many respects, and are eager not to alienate their lord and master. As a result, fears of Japanese involvement in distant US wars aren’t at all overblown: there aren’t yet any true checks and balances to prevent that happening in the future. Commentaries like this one are very self-serving to US interests, and unfortunately, they exert too great an influence in the halls of Japan’s ministries and legislature.

  5. Commentedhari naidu

    As usual, this is a US-(Japanese) centric view of strategic developments in Far East. In other words, containment of mainland China remains the foremost strategic goal of DOD…and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Principally because China’s recent strategic military developments are inevitably going to isolate not only Japan but also US and its PRC containment policy framework.

    People’s Daily is actually demanding more and closer cooperation with DOD – in order to limit/avoid military confrontation in South China Sea.

    Abe’s Japan is on a confrontation path with Beijing – which DOD may or may not be able to control. hara - kiri after all is a Japanese military strategic concept…!

    Finally, in 21st century, it’s foolish to think subcontinent of India will forego its regional peaceful cooperation with mainland China in return for some grandiose US military strategic alliance with Japan-Australia.
    It all sounds more like wishful thinking.

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