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Japan Breaks Through Ceiling of Self-Imposed Pacifism

Paper 5368                                                Dated 16-Jan-2013

By Dr. Subhash Kapila

“A resurgent Asian nation (Japan) has elevated hawkish nationalists to the pinnacle of power. Its maritime conflicts with neighbors raise the risk of military confrontation along key corridors of world trade. Memories of past national greatness infuse officials with determination to compete for regional leadership. The country’s re-emergence could rewrite the geopolitical map of Asia,”

“Tokyo has worked creatively to forge new strategic relationships that could reshape its region. The emerging debate over national identity will drive the country’ evolution from pacifism toward a more assertive regional posture”--------Richard Fontaine and Dan Twining in ‘The Wall Street Journal’ December 2012.

Japan today is in a resurgent mode as 2013 sets in, prodded not by United States strategic pivot to Asia but by China’s military brinkmanship and military provocations impinging heavily and directly on Japan’s much valued ‘National Sense of Honour’. The Samurai which went somnolent after 1945 has finally risen and taken the call for a more resurgent regional role against the backdrop of rising military aggressiveness and brinkmanship of China. The first steps, not shaky or hesitant, but deliberate and graduated in response, have been taken by Japan to break through ceiling of self-imposed pacifism.

The regional strategic and security landscape in East Asia is set for a definitive transformation along with its ripple effects on the Asian strategic setting as a whole. In the last decade one has constantly maintained that Japan’ discard of self-imposed pacifism was inevitable when viewed against the backdrop of the evolving Chinese military might and its military aggressiveness.  It was also maintained that this policy transformation would also arise from Japan’s increasing strategic consciousness that it would have to cater in its strategic formulations that Japan ultimately would have to stand militarily strong on its own self-reliant capabilities rather than on United States-provided security crutches.

Japan’s resurgence and breaking through its self-imposed pacifism needs to be analysed from the political and military perspectives as manifestations of resurgent transformation are found in both these fields. Japan was so far being held in a pacifist straitjacket by political factors rather than a lack of self- reliant military capabilities provided by advanced indigenous defence R&D and production infrastructure. It was also being held back by strong pressures within successive United States policy establishments goaded by two strategic misgivings centered on US appeasement policies towards China and US fears that military revivalism of Japan needed to be capped.

In the recent past was discernible a muted debate in Japanese political circles about Japan’s strategic future and security postures not impelled by any sense of military jingoism but because of China’s increasing military brinkmanship and the imperatives of Japan being able to withstand China’s increasing political and military coercive activities against Japan. My writings on Japanese security from 2002 onwards had been advocating the imperatives for Japan to go in for nuclear weaponisation and nuclear deterrence against China. This has also surfaced lately in some Japanese political thinking.

The manifestation of transformation of the Japanese national political mood finds reflection in the recent election of Prime Minister Abe and the increasing acceptance by the Japanese people of “new nationalist formations like the Japan Restoration Party reflect a rightward shift in the country’s political landscape”.  Prime Minister Abe in terms of his personal inclinations for a strong Japanese military posture can be placed in the company of former Japanese Premiers Tanaka, Nakasone and Koizumi whose priorities were the same.

Japan’s military manifestations in terms of breaking out of the self-imposed pacifist ceiling can be visible for over a decade now in terms of greater international security cooperation and joint military exercises with a number of Asian nations including India. Japan provided military logistics support for the US effort in Afghanistan including refuelling of US Navy ships in the Indian Ocean. Japan has strong inter-active linkages with NATO through a number on joint mechanisms. Japanese Navy has extended its naval reach to participate in anti-piracy naval patrols off Somalia and in disaster relief operations in South East Asia.

In terms of mufti-lateral security cooperation Japan has participated in the US-Japan-India Trilateral and the US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral beside strategic partnerships with India and Australia. After China’s threatening postures against its ASEAN disputants in the South China Sea, Japan is reported to be active in the military capacity-building of the ASEAN countries.

In what can be construed as a major military transformation, Japan has lifted its ceilings in arms exports which were banned under its US-imposed Constitution. This has two major impacts namely; Japanese reputed advanced military technology hardware will find attractive markets abroad and thereby bring in sizeable arms exports earnings which can put Japanese defence industry in over-drive for increased production to reinforce Japanese military capabilities.

Japan’s on-going upgradtation of military capabilities lately in relation to The China Threat stand covered in my earlier analyses on this website and is not being repeated here. Suffice it to state that in broad terms it incorporates shifting of its major military assets in a southward deployment, building mini-aircraft carriers termed as helicopter carriers, increasing its naval and air force assets and its ballistic missiles defences. With a revision ordered of the National Defense Program Guidelines blueprint it can be expected that the national ceiling on Japanese defence expenditure could also witness an upward raise.

Politically and strategically the major questions likely to be asked in policy making circles is as what is going to be the overall impact on regional security and the global strategic calculus of Japan breaking the ceiling of its self-imposed pacifism? As a resurgent power will Japan emerge as responsible stake-holder in terms of Asian security? Can the Japanese economy sustain Japan’s military build-up?

The first regional security impact will be more specifically in North East Asia and especially on the China-Japan-South Korea strategic triangle. China will no longer have a free run in this highly volatile region nor can China expect Japan to submit to Chinese political and military coercion. South Korea will no longer be able to play the ‘China Card’ against Japan and the United States. Intensification of military tensions can be expected as China attempts to flex its military muscles against a resurgent Japan. China’s recurring military brinkmanship against Japan could goad it into nuclear weaponisation.

In terms of East Asia and the Asia Pacific, China has no natural allies to further its strategic ambitions or its military brinkmanship. Contrarily, Japan has forged strategic partnerships with countries like India and strategic relationships with a number of ASEAN countries. China’s aggressive policies in the South China Sea disputes has pushed away into the US camp even the ASEAN ‘fence-sitters’. China now generates strategic fears and not strategic awe amongst its smaller neighbours and hence their seeking security insurance from the United States which earlier for a decade was absent from this region

In terms of overall impact on Asian security it can be stated that China’s unimpeded rise towards a hegemonic posture in Asia will now be subjected to check-mates, however minimal to begin with, from Japan and India and at some later stage from joint Japan-India initiatives, possibly.

However, the significant impact of Japan breaking through of self-imposed pacifism will be on the United States and its policy formulations in North East Asia. The United States would require revising a number of long held fixations in its policy establishment. The United States would be well advised not to take Japan for granted as a strategic protégé amenable to subsume its security priorities for the greater good of United States policy formulations on China where successive US Administrations were prone to appease China’s strategic sensitivities in the region. The United States would have to cater for according greater sensitivity to Japanese strategic sensitivities on regional and Asian security. After all it cannot be forgotten that Japan so far has financially underwritten the US Forward Military Presence in East Asia.

The next question that needs to be addressed is as to whether a resurgent Japan can be expected to be a responsible stakeholder in Asian security. The answer is a resounding yes as Japan has so far provided ample evidence to this effect, unlike China. Japan has not ruffled the Asian security environment. China’s intransigence and what one could even term as hostility against Japan primarily arises from China’s fears of Japan emerging as its peer competitor. South Korea’s dispute is resolvable and its emergence lately, is more political than strategic.

Lastly, the question of the Japanese economy being able to sustain Japan’s strategic resurgence, the answer is best provided by the eminent US dignitaries above who observe that: “Surprisingly, the basis of Japans resilience is its economy.,,,, China may have surpassed Japan in GDP by harnessing the productive power of its 1.3 billion citizens, yet it’s worth noting that Japan produces a similar level of output with less than one-tenth population,. For all its economic troubles, Japan retains pockets of technological excellence that could drive future growth.” Japan continues to be the world leader in many fields of economic activity and could encash those advantages along with defence exports ready to register a rise.

Concluding it needs to be reiterated that Japan breaking out of its self-imposed pacifism has unmatched significance for regional and global security as the other emerging Asian power, that is India , is strategically reluctant to checkmate China  on the vain plea of ‘strategic non-alignment’. Possibly Japan could provide a role-model in the future for India. Japan is no longer being viewed with hostility in Asia Pacific because of its World War II record where it has now forged substantial strategic and economic relationships and thereby provides promise that it is Japan around which the future security of Asia would revolve around and so observed by the authors quoted above: “If Japanese power was the problem of Asia before 1945, in the 21st century Japanese strength can serve as part of the solution.”