Is Japan's move towards militarisation beneficial for the region?

Instead of relying solely on the West and strengthening military preparations against Beijing, Japan should play its own diplomatic role as China's neighbor in de-escalating regional tensions, creating a different atmosphere in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Fumiko Yamada Mar 20, 2023
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Japanese Prime Minister’s arrival in India (Photo: Twitter)

Japan's traditional constitution calls for the armed forces to forever abandon the principle of war and formulate foreign policy. The country can no longer maintain that tradition. On 12 December 2022, Japan's ruling party coalition, composed of 90 percent of Liberal Democratic Party MPs and 10 percent of Komeito Party MPs, agreed on a change in the country's national security strategy, in which, among other things, guidelines for military development are determined for the next ten years.

The current decisions are inconsistent with Article 9 of the Constitution enacted in 1947. It says - "Japan has forever abandoned the use of armed forces to solve foreign policy problems."  But Japan has already emerged as a major military power and a large contingent of superpower military personnel is stationed in Japan. Late prime minister Shinzo Abe attempted to amend the clause by proposing to add a third clause to Article 9, known as the Abe Amendment. Abe's introduction of the amendment only makes a mockery of the founding document of modern Japan. Many want to drop the entire clause. But to change such a fundamental document is considered treacherous by many in Japan. 

According to Department of Defense data, there is about 56,000 US military personnel in Japan, which is more than any other country. Article 5 of the Constitution states that the United States must defend Japan if a third party attacks it. Article 6 expressly gives the United States the right to establish military bases on Japanese soil. As a result, the Americans are occupying the large island of Okinawa. The island is now claimed by China. There are 32 small and large military bases and 48 training centers operating in Japan. Despite a strong alliance based on common values, many Japanese feel that the Japanese and Americans are as mixed as oil and water. 

The key question is how the Japanese government will pay for the increased defense budget with its planned military upgrades. This is likely to cost Japan an additional $300 billion.

Test for Kishida administration

How will the process of radical change in Japan's defense policy actually unfold? China believes that by strengthening Japan militarily, the United States will use it against its country by arming Taiwan. The late Abe was known for his pro-Taiwan stance. After resigning, Abe said in late 2021, "Taiwan's emergency is an emergency for Japan and an emergency for the Japan-US alliance."

Post-assassination sympathies for Abe are key to whether the rise of right-wing forces will strengthen Japan and whether Article 9 of the post-war constitution will be amended. Many in Japan worry that the Kishida administration will seize the opportunity to fulfill Abe's legacy and revive Japanese militarism. Most parliamentarians are in favour of militarism.

The question now is how much political success Kishida will be able to achieve in the next three years after his recent election victory. Kisida had a strong interest in denuclearization and establishing order in the Indo-Pacific region. Kishida has enough motivation to pick up the baton of Abe's dream. Surprisingly, the biggest hurdle will be building consensus within the ruling party, not with the opposition.

Changing the constitution meant revising the Peace Constitution that the United States drafted for Japan after World War II, specifically Article 9, which stated that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." 'Land, sea and air forces, as well as other war capabilities, will never be maintained' and 'the right of war of states will not be recognized.'

Indeed, amending the Constitution has a greater symbolic meaning. Japan's right-wingers believe the change will signal Japan's recovery from war defeat.

US is still the deciding factor

Taiwanese commentator Julian Cuore said the real key is whether the US wants to "free the tiger from its cage." The US is still the deciding factor. Sino-US relations as well as Sino-Japanese relations have changed during Abe's time in power. After US President Joe Biden took office, Japan's position against China became clear and Japan's status as a US ally was enhanced.

China no longer sees Japan as an equal opponent. After Abe's death, there are no more "backseat drivers" to keep the Kishida administration in check. It seems that the plan to amend the constitution will be implemented. Japan's pro-US and pro-Taiwan positions are not going to change. Chinese netizens are saying sarcastically that if Japan goes back to militarization, China will have the opportunity to erase "a century of shame".

Kisida completed his visit to Washington on January 13 this year where he met with Biden. Biden praised Kishida as "a true leader and a true friend."Kishida's visit to the United States was followed by visits to five G-7 countries, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada. Japan is the current president of the G-7 group. 

In March 1990, Major General Henry C. Stackpole, commander of US Marine Corps bases in Japan, stated that American troops must remain in Japan; Because no one wants a resurgence of World War II,  he thinks it was better to keep the wolves locked up!

Christopher Johnstone, Japan Chair of the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "The tide of reluctance has shifted and the United States is welcoming Japan's new capabilities. Japan will now play an important strategic role and proxy for the United States in maintaining stability in East Asia due to China's growing military activity." t

In the post-World War II period, the Japanese Self-Defense Force, the JSDF, served only as a 'shield' engaged in defense, while US forces envisioned it as a 'spear' for retaliatory attacks. Reflecting on this issue, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, the late  Abe, was able to lay the groundwork for a plan to acquire a hostile strike capability at the end of his second term as prime minister, which has come to be known as 'Abe's counter-strike capability', a doctrine the Kishida administration is continuing. The US is happy about it, but China is against it.

Militarism and Japan's role as G-7 president have emerged as a major diplomatic challenge for the Kishida government in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Japan is still getting a lot of help in Russia's oil and gas development projects Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2. Billions of yen are pouring into Russia's economic pipeline every day. The harsh reality is that Hiroshima Gas Co. Ltd., located in Kishidar's own constituency, is getting almost half of its LNG from Sakhalin-2. 

Japan only supplies Ukraine with bullet-proof vests, helmets and other protective equipment. Japanese aid to Ukraine in 2022 is the lowest among the G-7, with a total value of 600 million euros, just 1.2 percent of total US aid to Ukraine, according to German calculations. As the West moves toward severing all ties with Russia, it's a tough balancing test for Kishida.

Dealing with a rising China

The second problem centers on nuclear weapons. Kishida is an activist for nuclear disarmament to build a "world without nuclear weapons". The Japanese can never forget Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But with Russia and North Korea threatening the direct use of strategic nuclear weapons and China expanding its nuclear arsenal, the reality is that Japan has become more dependent than ever on the US nuclear umbrella.

How to deal with a rising China is a major headache for the Kishida administration. With China in mind, Kishida has repeatedly said his government will not tolerate any attempt to forcibly change the regional balance of power in violation of international law, But with Japan's public debt already standing at 264 percent of GDP, the highest in the world, Kishida can't balance anything unless there is a limit to how much Tokyo can add to its growing national deficit in an effort to match China's growing military power.

Instead of relying solely on the West and strengthening military preparations against Beijing, Japan should play its own diplomatic role as China's neighbor in de-escalating regional tensions, creating a different atmosphere in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Many are questioning the diplomatic capabilities of the Kishida administration. Opposition alliances are questioning whether Japan should pursue its own traditional strengths and policies or act as a Western mouthpiece. The US demilitarized Japan so that Japan would not be able to turn and attack; now it is militarizing it to make it easier for China to attack.

(The author is a graduate of South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, Canada, and currently a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Views are personal. She can be reached at fuyamada14@gmail.com)

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