Thursday, April 12, 2012

End of an Era?

Tokyo is mobilizing for the upcoming North Korean launch with forwardness and confidence that is rarely seen in Japanese foreign policy. It is very possible that this is an indicator of the changing status quo in the Asia-Pacific: Japan is breaking from its Cold War-era role as a dependent state of the United States and making it on its own.

3 days before South Korea's befuddled officials announced their possible response to the rocket, Japan insisted with vigor that it would shoot down the rocket if it strayed into Japanese airspace. This announcement is somewhat shocking when you consider Article 9 of the Japanese constitution:
ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
During the Cold War, this law and the corresponding foreign policy doctrine (The Yoshida Doctrine) presented one of the best examples of the peace dividend. Tokyo was able to rehabilitate its international status and mend relations with victims of Japanese imperialism while receiving protection from the United States. Reconstruction of a bombed-out country is much easier when the government focuses entirely on the economy.

But the maintenance of the Yoshida Doctrine was always tenuous because it was not entirely rooted in the ideals of pacifism. On the contrary, this peace-loving policy was a cold and calculated maneuver that maximized gains both domestically and abroad. PM Shigeru Yoshida was able to satisfy both the left and right by institutionalizing neutrality while de facto remaining dependent on the US military. It was a brilliant political compromise to jump-start a shamed and defeated country.

So what has changed?

A lot of people are suggesting that it's China and its claims on Senkaku that has driven the Japanese to increase its focus on the military. But threats to Japan have always been present - 30 years ago it was the Soviet Union.

If we put the world of PM Yoshida and PM Yoshihiko Noda next to each other, one crucial difference becomes very evident: the decline of the US.

Japan slowly began rearming itself in the 1990s because of demands from Washington for Tokyo to be more engaged in regional security and Japan half-heartedly went down that route. Now "regional security" is not just an ambiguous term: Japan's security doctrine has completely shifted from home island defense to far-island defense. It plans to add 2 more Hyuga-class helicopter carriers and purchase American F-35 fighters (with vertical landing and liftoff capabilities), which would effectively equip the Japanese Self-Defense Force with 4 aircraft carriers. Last year, Tokyo even removed the self-imposed ban on arms exports, making way for the military-industrial complex to grow.

What Tokyo and other governments in Asia see is the increasing powerlessness of the United States before its own massive internal problems, both political and economic. For instance, Bruce Klinger notes:
The new defense strategy could prevent the U.S. from fulfilling its existing treaty requirements. For example, the current war plan responding to a North Korean invasion (OPLAN 5027) calls for the U.S. to deploy 690,000 ground troops, 160 destroyers, and 2,000 aircraft within 90 days. Doing so would require the entire U.S. Army and Marine Corps after the budget cuts. The Obama Administration should make clear to South Korea that future U.S. force levels will not support the current war plan.
No wonder the Japanese are rearming themselves - with Asia unstable as always with North Korean provocations and Chinese assertiveness, and with the US increasingly unable to fulfill its role as defender, Tokyo sees few options outside militarization. On top of that, unlike the 1940s and 50s, the economy is fairing better than people think it is.

While policymakers in Washington cheer Japan's increasing aggressiveness, few have raised the point that Tokyo's policies may be more of an indicator of American weakness.

The implications of Japan becoming a military force in the region are grave. There are ever-increasing tensions over the South China Sea and adding more robust military players into the region may not be a good solution. In addition, North Korea's response to Tokyo's militarization could also have some serious ramifications.

All in all, Northeast Asia is in for a rocky decade.

Check out my article on Asia Times Online

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