Abe’s Asian Gambit

CANBERRA – With the world producing more history than most of us can consume right now, it is easy to lose sight of recent developments that could have even greater consequences for long-term peace and stability than recent alarming events in eastern Ukraine, Gaza, and Syria-Iraq. The outcome of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the change of leadership in India and Indonesia – two of the world’s three largest democracies – and the re-energizing of the BRICS group of major non-Western states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) may all be such game-changers.

But Japan’s international muscle-flexing under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be even more significant. Unless it is very carefully managed by all concerned, including the United States and Japan’s other closest Asia-Pacific allies, Abe’s makeover of Japanese foreign policy could undermine the fragile power balances that have so far kept the Sino-American rivalry in check.

Japan is right to be concerned about China’s new regional assertiveness, and Abe’s recent diplomatic push to strengthen Japan’s relations in Southeast Asia, and with Australia and India, is understandable in that context. Nor is it inherently unreasonable – despite opposition at home and abroad – for his government to seek to reinterpret Article 9 of Japan’s “peace constitution” to permit wider engagement in collective self-defense operations and military cooperation with allies and partners.

But the risks in all of this must be openly acknowledged. Opposition to any perceived revival of Japanese militarism is hard-wired in Northeast Asia. Abe is an intensely conservative nationalist, still deeply reluctant to accept the extent of Japan’s World War II guilt (even when acknowledging, as he did in Australia recently, “the horrors of the past century’s history” and offering gracious condolences for “the many souls who lost their lives”).