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Japan, However Reluctantly, Reawakens

September 01, 2000|TED GALEN CARPENTER | Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's comment earlier this year that his nation is "a divine country with the emperor at its center" triggered a surge of apprehension in East Asia and the United States that aggressive Japanese nationalism is making a comeback. Although Mori's remarks were imprudent, Japan is simply beginning to behave like a normal country again after a U.S.-encouraged political and strategic slumber lasting more than half a century.

Instead of always relying on the United States to take care of security problems in East Asia, Tokyo is beginning to show some independent initiative. That change is long overdue and should be accepted--indeed, encouraged--by the United States and Japan's democratic neighbors in the region. A strong, more assertive Japan is an essential component of East Asian security.

Several events during the mid- and late-1990s forced Japan to begin taking security issues more seriously: Beijing's attempted bullying of Taiwan in 1995-96, North Korea's missile launch in August 1998 and Washington's flirtation with a U.S.-China "strategic partnership"--a naive venture that peaked during President Clinton's visit to China in June 1998.

Tokyo's actions, though, have been modest and cautious. After the tepid U.S. reaction to the North Korean missile launch, Japan decided to create a robust, independent intelligence gathering and evaluation capability, including a network of spy satellites. Japanese officials also began to take more interest generally in developments on the Korean peninsula, as evidenced by Tokyo's active diplomatic posture in the months leading up to the recent summit between North Korea and South Korea.

Potentially more significant, Japan is on the verge of deciding to let its naval Self-Defense Forces participate in multilateral efforts to eradicate piracy in the Strait of Malacca. The Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant party in Japan's governing coalition, has indicated for the first time that it is willing to discuss modifying Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. As generally interpreted, that article prohibits Japan from using military force except in response to an attack on its own territory.

These developments suggest that Japan wishes to begin playing a strategic role commensurate with its status as an economic great power. Other actions, though, convey a continuing hesitation. For example, Tokyo declined to contribute military personnel to the international peacekeeping force in East Timor, despite the obvious Japanese stake in promoting stability in Indonesia.

Worse, Japan appears content with perpetuating its subordinate status under the revised defense guidelines for the U.S.-Japan alliance adopted in 1997. The revisions authorize Japan, for the first time, to provide logistical support for U.S. military operations involving a crisis in East Asia that does not include an attack on Japan. Despite considerable propaganda on both sides of the Pacific, however, that change is relatively modest. The revised guidelines in no way suggest that Japanese combat forces will join their American counterparts in responding to a crisis in, say, the Taiwan Strait--much less that Japan can take the initiative in repelling an act of aggression directed against a neighbor.

Unfortunately, Washington prefers such an anemic security role for Japan. The U.S. desire to keep Japan on a short leash was evident in the comments of Clinton administration officials following the preliminary negotiations on the revised guidelines. Those senior officials stressed that they did not expect Japanese forces to fight alongside U.S. forces in an East Asian crisis, nor did they desire such a commitment.

Such reflexive distrust of Japan is unhealthy for all concerned. Both the United States and Japan's East Asian neighbors need to recognize that the Japan of the early 21st century bears almost no resemblance to the aggressive, militaristic Japan of the 1930s. Today's Japan is a stable, democratic country with an enormous economic stake in the regional and global status quo. Those who fear the rebirth of Japanese militarism are chasing ghosts.

Japan needs to become a normal great power in every respect. Developments on the Korean peninsula ought to matter more to Japan than to the United States. Likewise, discouraging Beijing from forcibly absorbing Taiwan should be a high priority for Japanese leaders, since such an act of aggression would change the entire balance of power in the region.

Contrary to those who warn of resurgent Japanese nationalism, the danger is not that Japan will seek to do too much too soon in the security arena. Given the growing signs of turmoil in East Asia, the real danger is that Japan will do too little too late.

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